At the Annual General Meeting (conference) of the rail union RMT (26 June to 1 July), the key debate was about the recently-announced McNulty Report on the rail industry.
Although rail spending post-privatisation has risen due to the privateers themselves, the report recommends further deregulation of the industry. All recommended savings will be from cuts to staffing levels, wages and conditions. This is a class-motivated attack on our unionised workforce; as one delegate put it: “this is our miners’ strike”.
Is our union up to the challenge? The leadership moved a motion for a vigorous public and political campaign, which was passed unanimously. It is encouraging to see the leadership taking these attacks seriously. Bob Crow’s keynote speech of the conference was a battle cry to defeat McNulty.
But some speakers from the floor went further and hinted that an industrial strategy is needed. One reminded the leadership to update membership records for taking industrial action, saying “we’re ready to fight, bring us out!” Another said, “This unites us all, something we’ve not seen since the old BR days. We can win this”. In the coming months, Workers’ Liberty will need to build on the union’s defiant stance, extending the debate about the combination of political and industrial strategy that will defeat these attacks.
International speakers also hinted at tough times ahead. Bob Kinnear from the Amalgamated Transit Union in Toronto, Canada, told us how the Ontario state government banned transit workers’ strikes, under the banner of “essential services”, the same sort of thing that London Mayor Boris Johnson is attempting. Bob Kinnear told us that 50% of their workforce were in favour of losing the right to strike, so it was pertinent that the conference unanimously passed a motion initiated by Workers’ Liberty members on educating RMT members about the importance of industrial action in the face of impending threats.
Other issues showed that the rank-and-file need to force the leadership to take up issues with their full seriousness.
Peter Pinkney from Teesside berated the union for effectively abandoning the Network Rail dispute after strike action was injuncted in Easter 2010. Liverpool Branch won an appeal against the way the union had agreed changes to pay cycles with Network Rail. The key issue was that “members had wanted a say”.
London Transport Region also won a victory for rank-and-file democracy. A set of proposals generated by a local reps’ meeting had been voted down by the leadership. Assistant General Secretary Pat Sikorski defended this decision by saying the union should listen to “senior” but not local reps. We persuaded the conference to overturn that elitist decision.
Despite hearing trade unionists speak from Canada, New York, New Zealand, and even having to sit through a Cuban “trade unionist” defending the Cuban government, we had a more difficult time in persuading the RMT to welcome the burgeoning independent Egyptian trade union movement.
The leadership’s argument is that we must tread carefully until we know more. I gave a detailed speech about the record of bravery of this movement. It was sadly not enough to dissuade the conference from following the leadership. But Workers’ Liberty members made a powerful case that will not be forgotten.
Even in a militant union, such as the RMT, there is still a need for the input of Workers’ Liberty members to advocate serious fights, rank-and-file democracy, and real working-class internationalism.