Michelle Rodgers has been elected president of the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers (RMT), becoming the first woman president in the union’s history. She won a comprehensive victory, with 7,198 votes; her two opponents, Steve Shaw and Jamie Nickles, took 4,598 and 443 votes respectively.
Michelle works for Arriva Rail North at Manchester Piccadilly, where she is a local union rep, and has previously served on the union’s National Executive Committee. She is also the secretary of her RMT branch, Manchester South. The national presidential position is the RMT’s most senior “lay” role; unlike the union’s general secretary and two assistant general secretaries, and its Regional Organisers, the national president is not an employee of the union but rather is released from their job for the duration of their three-year term, before returning to the shop floor. As such, the president is a vital voice for the rank-and-file at the highest level of the union, ensuring democratic functioning and that officers are held to account.
Steve Shaw was backed by much of the union’s central officialdom, including many officers. While Michelle’s campaign consistently emphasised the role of the president in holding officers to account and ensuring rank-and-file voices were given primacy at the highest level of the union, Shaw’s campaign lacked any similar emphasis on rank-and-file democracy.
Michelle’s campaign mobilised wide support from RMT branches across the country, including all the currently active branches in the London Transport Region, its largest regional section, and its off-shore branches. Members of Workers’ Liberty and the Socialist Party, the two most prominent anti-Stalinist socialist organisations active in the union, backed Michelle, as well as anarcho-syndicalist activists, and a wide range of unaffiliated socialists, rank-and-file activists, and other radicals. Steve Shaw’s backers included members and fellow-travellers of the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star), and RMT members involved in the Stalinist-nationalist “Red London” Facebook page, as well as some formerly associated with the milieu around Red London who have now disassociated from it.
The political division within the union over the question of Labour Party reaffiliation, which culminated in a special general meeting in May 2018 which narrowly voted against reaffiliation, did not map directly onto the presidential campaign. Although Michelle opposed reaffiliation, as did many of her supporters, her campaign also included many who back reaffiliation. The campaign united a broad range of activists in support of a platform that emphasised rank-and-file democracy and equality.
The election was marred by some underhanded tactics, occasionally spilling over into outright slander; the Shaw campaign repeatedly circulated on social media the lie that Michelle had crossed a picket line at her workplace. Shaw also took to attacking prominent Michelle supporter Glen Hart, the chair of the union’s Black and Ethnic Minority (BEM) committee, on social media, declaring him “unfit to hold office” while he ran for a rep’s position in the company he works for.
Equality and diversity within the union was also a central issue in the election. Although she was not personally involved in it before joining the National Executive, Michelle has given strong support to the union's women's committee and to the other equality committees. The opening salvo of the campaign was effectively fired in February 2018, when, in response to incumbent president Sean Hoyle noting and criticising the lack of representation of women and people of colour on the union’s National Executive Committee in a column in the RMT magazine, Shaw wrote a screed attacking Hoyle, accusing him of “electioneering”, and arguing candidates should be elected “on merit”, implying no special attention should be given to issues of diversity. In an interview with the Tubeworker bulletin, Michelle cited this as a key factor in motivating her to stand:
“It was debates in our union, including in the pages of RMT News, around equalities that finally spurred me on to stand. I’m a strong believer that all the equalities campaigns within the union – women members, LGBT members, black and ethnic minority members, and disabled members – should be empowered, so they’re better able to make sure members from these backgrounds, who are often under-represented in the union, are at the heart of what the union does.”
Leading activists in all four of the union’s equalities committees, BEM, women’s, LGBT+, and disabled, backed Michelle. Michelle said: “The three key principles of my campaign are ‘democracy, equality, solidarity’. Democracy, because as president I’d work to ensure the union’s democracy was upheld and extended so rank-and-file members can lead; equality, because I fight for a socialist society based on equality, and because I want to advance equality within the union; and solidarity, because it’s only by standing together with each other and taking action as workers that we can win change.”
Michelle’s victory is a step forward for equality and democracy in RMT. The union organises in industries where many sectors are male-dominated, and where BEM and LGBT+ representation is poor. For the union to be a strong voice in the workplace, and in society, against discrimination and inequality, equality and liberation must be at the heart of its own agenda. Michelle’s election is a step towards that.
The low turnout in the election, around 15%, shows that there is work to do in order to improve member engagement with the union. This is work that will be made easier with the support of a president who aims to be a voice for an independent rank-and-file in the union’s national leadership.
As Michelle put it: “Our best means of winning change […] is through coordinated industrial action. RMT has a proud history of helping members organise to take action; as president, I’d ensure that any group of workers who wanted to take action to improve their conditions at work were supported and encouraged in doing that, rather than being dissuaded or held back.”