The individual members’ ballot in the election for the new General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers’ union (RMT) begins on Monday 21 July, after a period of branch nominations.
RMT members face serious industrial and political challenges. Significant staffing cuts are threatened in the railway industry, the union’s largest industrial sector, as bosses implement the recommendations of the McNulty Report, commissioned by Labour and completed by the Tories.
Some train companies are pushing for “driver-only-operation”, scrapping the guard grade altogether, and companies like London Underground are attempting to push through drastic cuts to staffing levels and across-the-board closures of ticket offices.
Outsourcing and casualisation continue, with poverty pay endemic in grades like cleaning.
Within the union itself, a new General Secretary will need to help reinvigorate organisation at workplace and branch level, and improve the union’s culture and structures on equalities: currently, 12.5% of the RMT’s members are women, but its national leadership is made up entirely of men.
With the 2015 general election approaching, and the issue of rail renationalisation increasingly prominent, the union will also examine its political strategy. The “No2EU” project it backed at the European elections did poorly, and has since been quietly wound up as an electoral initiative.
The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) initiative the RMT also backed, which is mainly animated by the Socialist Party, shows few signs of making a breakthrough or developing into a force with real roots, significant democratic life, and a political vision beyond lowest-common-denominator “anti-austerity” politics.
Workers’ Liberty members active in RMT are backing John Leach, the current London Transport Regional Organiser, former RMT President and Executive Member, and a London Underground worker. We have worked with John in number of capacities for many years.
We are backing him because he is a democrat, who believes in member leadership and an open, accessible culture within the union.
We are backing him because he favours a serious discussion about the union’s political strategy, and supports a diversity of political tactics beyond the current culture of “contracting out” the union’s work in the political sphere to TUSC and other electoral initiatives.
And we are backing him because he is a genuine militant who wants the union to be effective and win, using tactics like strike pay where necessary.
John has emphasised workplace organisation and fighting effectively on day-to-day industrial issues as the foundation for continuing to grow the union. He has also fought hard on equalities, taking practical steps to ensure that the struggles of women, black, LGBT, and disabled workers (and passengers) have been at the heart of the RMT’s current fight against cuts and closures on London Underground.
He has committed to “ensure that the union at every level is representative of the full diversity of [the] membership”, addressing the current imbalance whereby the union’s entire national leadership is white and male. John has also committed not to take the full General Secretary’s salary if elected, and will remain on his London Underground wage.
There are four other candidates in the election.
The default culture in the RMT is a more “militant” and “left-wing” one (in some ways) than in many other unions, so there is no explicitly “right-wing” candidate to the extent that there might in elections in, say, Unison or PCS. From a distance and to an outsider, the differences between candidates might be hard to identify.
The other candidates are Mick Cash, the Acting General Secretary who took over after Bob Crow’s death in an interim capacity due to being Senior Assistant General Secretary; Steve Hedley, the second Assistant General Secretary and former London Transport Regional Organiser; Alex Gordon, former President; and Alan Pottage, the current head of the union’s Organising Department.
Mick Cash is the most “conservative” (in RMT terms) of the candidates. Although his election material promises “a militant, member-led union”, when Cash stood (unsuccessfully) against the young Bob Crow for the Assistant General Secretary position in 1994, it was on the basis of criticising Crow for being strike-happy. In 2004, while representing the union on the Labour Party NEC, he voted with the Labour leaders — and against union policy — to defeat a motion opposing the Iraq war, and during the war itself moved that an NEC meeting move to next business to avoid an “embarrassing” debate about Iraq.
Steve Hedley has been a prominent figure in the London Transport region of the RMT for many years, and rose to more national prominence after beating incumbent Assistant General Secretary Pat Sikorski in 2012. Workers’ Liberty members backed him in that election.
Hedley has been a figure of particular controversy on the labour movement left since he was accused, in 2013, of domestic violence by a former partner — an accusation which he suggested, in an internal RMT investigation into the matter, was a conspiracy originating with Workers’ Liberty member and then-RMT Executive member Janine Booth (a claim which has since been officially repudiated by a further RMT investigation).
We cannot know whether Hedley is guilty of the allegations. We believe his public response to them, which, accused his former partner of malicious intent in making the allegations and publicised details of her mental health, was offensive and inappropriate for a senior trade union official.
Alex Gordon was President of the union between 2010 and 2011. He has been one of the most outspoken advocates of the union’s policy on the EU, prominently supporting UK withdrawal and helping channel much of RMT’s political activity into anti-EU initiatives. He is industrially militant, and on some other political issues, he has a respectworthy record, speaking out in the TUC against “boycott Israel” policies and for the then-RMT position of building solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian workers’ organisations. He also helped organise solidarity between the RMT and the Iraqi workers’ organisations which emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Alan Pottage was appointed by Bob Crow to head the union’s Organising Department in the early 2000s. A former Edinburgh railworker, Pottage was victimised at work and sacked. He has occupied various labour movement positions since, working as an organiser for steel workers’ unions. He spent time as a worker for Amnesty International. He has been an employed (not elected) official of the RMT since 2002.
Politically he is similar to Crow, and supported the “No2EU” initiative. He is a serious and effective organiser, with a genuine belief in real, combative trade unionism. Workers’ Liberty members will be advocating a second preference vote for Pottage. However, we think it is problematic that RMT’s constitution allows union employees — as well as members — to stand for office within the union.
The immense respect that Bob Crow commanded amongst RMT members, and the sudden and tragic nature of his death, give the election particular characteristics. No candidate wishes to be seen as a “change” candidate, arguing (justifiably, on the whole) that there is little appetite amongst the membership for significant departures from the union’s existing cultures and practises.
But there are areas where Workers’ Liberty members believes the union can improve — more progressive attitudes and approaches towards equalities; a more radical and effective, and less demagogic, form of militancy; a thorough debate on political strategy; and more inclusive, democratic culture.
We believe John Leach is the candidate who can best take RMT forward.
Tube cleaners locked out
Since Monday 7 July, Tube cleaners in the RMT have been “locked out” by their employer, ISS, for refusing to use biometric fingerprinting machines to book on for work.
The machines are an insult to cleaners’ dignity; ISS has admitted it will share data with the Home Office to be used as an immigration tool.
Cleaners say they are willing to work, they just don't want to hand over unique data to an untrustworthy employer. ISS has sent cleaners home without pay, and is desperately drafting in agency staff to cover the work.
The RMT is organising hardship funds for the cleaners. The union has also organised a number of demonstrations, outside Parliament, at London Underground headquarters, and at ISS’s offices.
Cleaner activists say a strike may be necessary to force ISS to back down and agree to allow cleaners to book on using the existing, written, system.