Marxism at Work: One Union For All Railworkers

Submitted by AWL on 20 November, 2006 - 12:21

The greatest weakness among rail workers today is our being split into several unions. Management are able to exploit the divisions, and the unions' energies are diverted into duplicating each others' services and competing with each other rather than uniting against the employers. At its worst, they even end up signing separate deals or scabbing on each others' strikes.

At least RMT is formally committed to one union for all railworkers, and organises all grades rather than clinging to the idea that some grades are special and separate. But none of our unions has any sort of campaign aiming to unite us all in one union beyond the catch-all, "we are the best so join us" slogan. It was not always the case.

Historically, trade unionism began in the 19th century with small craft societies. The railway industry had dozens of these, with separate organisations for every grade from wheel-tappers to booking clerks. With the dawn of "new unionism" and some significant strike movements, many of these joined together, firstly to form the Associated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), then the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) in 1913. Two unions remained outside the new, all-grades NUR: ASLEF, which preferred a federation of rail unions rather than a merger; and the Railway Clerks' Association, later to become the TSSA. The NUR merged with the National Union of Seamen in 1990 to form the RMT.

So, there are plenty of historical precedents for mergers on the railway. It would seem then that what we are up against is craft chauvinism, and a lack of political will on the part of the union bureaucrats who are generally opposed to sacrificing their powers or privileges for the benefit of the members.

Divided like this, and in a period of political reaction and membership passivity, we begin to lose even the shared principles and common ground that enables unions to show each other solidarity during disputes and run joint campaigns on political issues.

Take the following example. In an article entitled "Further decline of relations with RMT", October's ASLEF Journal accuses RMT of leafleting depots during the South West Trains dispute with a leaflet that "looked like an open invitation to join the RMT and offer your services as a strike breaker”. Whatever the truth of this, the fact that it has appeared in print means that it will be accepted by most ASLEF members.

To accuse the RMT of this (and maybe to have done it) is a sorry indication of what happens within a divided workforce. This is the latest salvo in a war of words between both unions. Earlier effects of it have included a refusal by ASLEF to take part in the joint union campaign to stop the privatisation of the East London Line!

Some might say that this is just par for the course, it has always been like this and it always will be. Everybody has their pet story about how bad the other union is and that is usually sufficient to stifle discussion on the need for one union on the railway. But like the principle of always respecting a picket line, the call for one rail union should be a constant in our organisational practice.

Armed with such a policy, the rank and file could then use the opportunities for discussion with workers from other unions that joint actions like the pensions campaign presents. Alternatively the John McDonnell Labour Party leadership challenge would also provide the framework in which like-minded workers could get together with those in other unions to break through the petty divisions and build confidence in the idea that there is so much more that unites than divides us.

Outside the world of the railways, union mergers are common: recently it was the turn of the university lecturers to unite in one union, UCU. At the present time the TGWU and Amicus are also discussing it. So it isn't that workers can't do it.

Merger is not, however, an end in itself: it is a means to an end. Our focus is on building fighting unity in the workplace in the here and now. Establishing the fact amongst the rank and file that there is an inescapable industrial, organisational and financial logic to a merger would go hand in hand with demands for maximum democracy, accountability and rank and file control.

This is the viewpoint from which we would assess the merits or pitfalls with various proposals in relation to a merger. We ask: would this new structure or organisational proposal help or hinder a united fight back in the workplaces and a revival of trade unionism?

And even when a merger does not seem to be on the cards, we can still try to organise the maximum unity at both national and grassroots level - always respecting each others' picket lines, forming joint strike committees, submitting common claims and demands from the smallest local issue to the biggest national one.

The simple fact is that we can go on wasting our energies fighting each other or we can unite to fight the boss.
"The only social power of the workmen is their number. The force of numbers, however is broken by disunion." Karl Marx

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