An explosive conflict has broken out at the top of the RMT, which quickly found its way into the public domain and was picked up by the Union News website.
Assistant General Secretary (AGS) Mick Lynch, covering the General Secretary (GS) role due to the illness of incumbent Mick Cash, has gone off sick from work, citing stress-related ill-health, publishing a long letter to national president Michelle Rodgers detailing the background. He accuses the National Executive Committee majority of bullying him; of “undermining the role of the general secretary”; of “constant questioning and nit-picking over staffing matters”; of submitting “coordinated resolutions”; and of and generally making it “impossible for the union to be managed properly, efficiently, or professionally.”
That Mick Lynch's, and before him, Mick Cash’s, health has deteriorated to the point where he finds it impossible to continue working is a serious matter. We wish them well, and hope they are supported in recovering.
There are certainly wider issues around how the union – which, as well as being a representative body, is also a workplace and an employer for national officers, regional organisers, staff members, National Executive Committee members, and others – deals with issues of mental health. Just a week prior to Mick Lynch going off sick, Dave Marshall, an RMT employee working in the Organising Department, was sacked from his job due to a long-term absence due to mental ill health. This is despite Dave and his representative putting forward a clear roadmap and timeframe for his return to work, which was approved by Dave's line manager within the union.
As numerous RMT branches which have passed resolutions about Dave's dismissal have noted, sacking someone for long-term mental health absence rather than supporting their recovery and helping them return to work at their own pace, is the kind of callous, uncaring action for which RMT reps and activists routinely indict employers. For our own union to behave in this way is a disgrace. Dave's case is not isolated, with other complaints by RMT employees of poor treatment around mental health, and bullying, also ongoing.
Many activists are now calling for an externally-run investigation into these matters, so RMT members can comprehensively assess how our union is operating as an employer, and how the officials, both elected and appointed, who staff it are treated, particularly in terms of workplace mental health and bullying. Off The Rails supports those calls. It is unlikely to be an easy process, and its findings may be bitter, but dragging the problems into the light is the first step to fixing them. The ultimate responsibility for the union ridding itself of these problems lies with the union itself, and crucial to this is rank-and-file members asserting our right to a democratic and effective union free of bullying.
But there is more involved here than how the union acts as an employer. Issues of bullying and mental health also affect reps and activists, and this is an opportunity to address that as well.
Also posed are fundamental democratic questions about how the union is run. The key theme of Mick Lynch's letter is that he, as the AGS covering the GS role, has been obstructed from running the union by the National Executive Committee. He accuses them of exceeding their constitutional role, but the concrete examples he cites don't support that claim. In fact, the NEC's constitutional role is precisely to lead the union. The general secretary and other officers are not in charge; their job is to carry out the decisions of the Executive, which in turn are based on policies passed in branches, the basic building block of RMT democracy, and other democratic bodies such as equality committees.
The RMT's NEC is a lay body, made up of rank-and-file members effectively seconded to the employ of the union for a limited three-year term, after which they return to the workplace and resume their shop floor roles. Consecutive terms are prohibited, ensuring a degree of rotation. The NEC has the constitutional power to set its own agenda.
The tension that appears to be expressed by Mick Lynch's letter is between two conceptions of how the RMT should operate: one in which it is run by its officers, who are union staff, substantively employed by the RMT rather than seconded from a shop floor job, and who can stand for consecutive terms, thereby constituting a “permanent” bureaucracy at the core of the union – and one in which it is run by lay representatives on the NEC, taking their lead from branches.
That tension will rarely be stated explicitly – everyone in RMT says they want the union to be “member-led” - but it is undeniably there. What other conclusion can we draw, for example, from the latest bulletin from the “RMT Broad Left”, a faction of RMT activists whose politics align with the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) and "Old Labour", which accuses the NEC of attempting “a coup” against the general secretary, clearly implying they believe the general secretary should be in charge? Their leaflet claims that, "as RMT members we hate hearing criticisms of RMT officials", as if members criticising officials is something to lament, rather than a necessary and healthy part of any robust culture of democratic accountability! The "Broad Left" leaflet can be read here (p1) and here (p2).
Independent rank-and-file organisation is badly needed. A network that can assert the democratic right of RMT members to run their own union via their elected lay executive is an essential counterweight to the power of the bureaucracy. Ongoing discussions about founding such a network amongst an informal group of activists which has occasionally issued statements under the “Campaign for a Fighting, Democratic Union” banner over the last two years must now proceed with renewed urgency.
While the NEC asserting itself as a body, and insisting on its democratic right to lead the union, is positive, the NEC majority needs to reflect on its own recent record, and learn from the past. Despite occasional spasms of opposition, the NEC has been largely pliant under Mick Cash's leadership since his re-election in 2019. Last year, the NEC voted to approve a pay deal on Network Rail that signed away a "no compulsory redundancies" agreement. More recently, when the pandemic began, the NEC went along with Cash in summarily calling off, at a single stroke, every single live industrial dispute the union was currently running, sparking protests and objections from rank-and-file activists and RMT branches. The NEC has also responded to issues raised by equality advisory committees in a perfunctory and sometimes dismissive manner. Complaining about the bureaucracy throwing its weight around after the fact, or lamenting Cash and Lynch's more cautious and conservative approach to industrial strategy and equalities campaigning, is not much use if the NEC doesn't stand up to it at the time.
We also desperately need to avoid looking for saviours. Many rank-and-file members' reaction to the conflict breaking into the open has been something between bafflement and despair, with many expressing sentiments along the lines of, “this would never have happened under Bob Crow, if only we had him back...”
Bob Crow is justifiably much missed. And it is true that, largely through force of personality and by commanding genuine respect across the union's internal political spectrum, he did manage to “hold the ring” effectively and keep factional tensions largely beneath the surface. Whether that is a healthy state of affairs is another question entirely; if the sincere organisational and political differences the currently developing debates reveal had been expressed and debated openly, between openly and transparently organised groups, rather than semi-suppressed, they may not have emerged in such an explosive fashion that threatens to toxify the union's internal life.
Those members now looking for another “strong leader” - whether Steve Hedley, now covering the GS role, or anyone else - to put the lid back on everything are therefore misguided. Such an effort would be highly unlikely to work, and the attempt would make matters worse. We also have long-standing criticisms of Hedley's record and politics - see this article, from the 2015 general secretary election, and this report of the 2018 AGM. If the burgeoning debate calcifies into "Lynch vs Hedley", with members expected to line up behind one or the other "strong leader" figure, that would be a disaster.
As the great revolutionary union organiser, railway worker, and socialist Eugene V. Debs put it: "Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be lead back again. I would have you make up your minds there is nothing that you cannot do for ourselves." That is the attitude we need from our "leaders": an understanding that true leadership is about empowering people to realise their own strength, capabilities, and potential, not cultivating individual power bases to build personal authority and prestige.
It is, to say the least, regrettable timing that the conflict has broken during an acute economic crisis, with thousands of RMT members facing potential attacks on our terms and conditions and widespread job losses. The union urgently needs to gear up to resist those attacks and make counter-offensives to defend and extend our rights and power. But questions of internal organisation and reform cannot be avoided simply by stressing the urgency of the industrial situation. The union will be radically less effective as a tool for fighting those battles than it could be – than we need it to be – unless the internal questions are addressed and the problems fixed.
We need a democratic union, led from the shop floor up, where power lies as close to the workplace, the point of production, as possible. That is how we can forge the union into the most effective weapon possible for fighting our immediate industrial battles. Anything that inhibits that, anything that increases the distance between rank-and-file members in the workplace and decision-making in the union, must be resisted. In order to organise such resistance, we need an independent rank-and-file network.