The Annual General Meeting of the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers (RMT), which took place in Manchester from 23-27 June, debated motions submitted by the union's branches, Industrial Organising Conferences, and equalities conferences. Many were consensual, with a majority passing unanimously. Others caused more controversy, and for reasons of space this report will focus largely on the contentious motions. This particular AGM was historic in that it was the first, in the entire history of the union and all its predecessor organisations, to be chaired by a woman, following the victory of Michelle Rodgers in the presidential election in 2018.
RMT's AGM is proportionally smaller than many other union conferences, with just 68 delegates representing a membership of around 85,000. The culture of the conference reflects the union's culture – in some ways highly democratic and participatory, with all debates open to all delegates to contribute, and allowed to continue until everyone who wishes to speak has had their say. The senior national officers are, however, undoubtedly able to influence proceedings, with either the general secretary or one of the two assistant general secretaries responding, at unlimited length (all other speakers' contributions are timed), to every item on the agenda, and making a voting recommendation which is apparently decided unilaterally.
Although many speakers acknowledged the union's ongoing industrial battles, such as the strikes against Driver Only Operation which have recently resumed on South Western Railway, the AGM was dominated less by detailed discussion of industrial strategy and more by broader and more general perspectives on policy issues, both domestic and international.
The RMT became the third national union, after the Independent Workers' union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), to back the Free Our Unions campaign, initiated by supporters of the Labour left magazine the Clarion and the Lambeth branch of Unison in 2017. Although general secretary Mick Cash suggested that RMT's affiliation to the existing Campaign for Trade Union Freedom would mean supporting Free Our Unions would be a duplication of work, delegates voted overwhelmingly for the motion, with 11 against and one abstention. Left-wing motions were passed on anti-fascist activism and on political strategy; a 2018 Special General Meeting opposed reaffiliation to the Labour Party, but voted to orient more closely to Labour. A motion passed at this year's AGM clarified that electoral work should focus on supporting left-wing Labour candidates within the context of general campaigning for a Labour vote.
On Brexit, two motions were submitted, one arguing for a “socialist exit from the EU”, and the other arguing for the RMT to reverse its historic support for Brexit and adopt a “remain and rebel”-type position, citing campaigns such as Another Europe is Possible. The former passed, with nine votes against and five abstentions, meaning the latter was deemed to have fallen automatically and was not moved. Many delegates objected to the structuring of the debate in this way, arguing that the two motions should have had equal time, followed by a vote out between them. A challenge to the chair on this point won a majority, but not a sufficiently large one (two thirds) to overturn the ruling.
The dominant international politics in the RMT were reflected in debates over a motion on Venezuela, and two on Cuba. On Venezuela, the motion, written by supporters of the Socialist Party, was not explicitly supportive of the Maduro regime, but held back from explicitly criticising its authoritarianism, focusing entirely on the threats from the right-wing opposition. I attempted to inject some balance into the debate by reading a statement from Trabajadores en Lucha (Workers in Struggle) a coalition of trade union and socialist activists in Venezuela, which put forward an independent position opposing both Maduro and Guaido. Trabajadores en Lucha involves five socialist groups and numerous prominent trade union activists, including Eduardo Sánchez, president of SINATRAUCV (National Workers’ Union of the Central University of Venezuela) and FETRAESUV (Venezuelan Federation of Higher Education Administrative Workers), José Bodas, general secretary of the FUTPV (Unitary Federation of Oil and Gas Workers of Venezuela), and Orlando Chirino, coordinator of C-CURA (Classist, Unitary, Revolutionary and Autonomous Current), and former national organiser of the UNT (National Workers' Union). Responding to the debate, Assistant General Secretary Steve Hedley said Trabajadores en Lucha “could probably hold their AGM in a phonebox”, and that Venezuela was a highly democratic country whose government we should support.
Similar arguments were made about Cuba, when General Secretary Mick Cash urged delegates to vote against a motion from the union's LGBT+ conference condemning the recent repression of a Pride march in Havana. Although the motion did not seek to reverse the RMT's general position of support for the Cuban regime, nor break its links with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, Cash opposed the motion on the basis that the state had been justified in cancelling the march, arguing “there were security concerns around the march that led to it having to be rearranged.” The “great strides” Cuba has made towards LGBT+ equality mean that it is unreasonable for us to criticise it, Cash argued. Despite his opposition, the motion passed 35-25, with four abstentions. A further motion opposing the Cuban blockade was passed, but with a significant vote against, after the mover of the motion rightly used part of his speech to oppose the Cuban state's ban on independent trade unions and political organisation, saying that opposition to the blockade did not have to imply support for the regime. This prompted an impassioned defence of the Cuban regime from AGS Hedley.
A motion supporting Chris Williamson passed, with seven votes against and four abstentions. In supporting the motion, one delegate argued that he had “never heard of antisemitism until Corbyn became leader”, and AGS Hedley said that the opposition to Williamson was motivated by an attempt to silence supporters of the Palestinians within the labour movement, and therefore that those who do not defend Williamson are “complicit” in the oppression and murder of the Palestinians.
On the issue of climate change, a motion submitted by my own branch and the Morden and Oval branch, calling for RMT to back policies for a “Socialist Green New Deal”, including full public ownership of the energy sector, narrowly fell, after GS Cash opposed it on the basis that its call for the “ending of fossil fuel extraction” as part of a “worker-led transition towards a zero-carbon economy” would put offshore energy workers, who RMT organises, out of jobs.
This is typical of the short-termist and sectional arguments used across the labour movement to talk down radical environmental politics; Unite and GMB, which support airport expansion, use a similar approach to justify their position, claiming that supporting job creation for its members and potential members overrides environmental concerns.
The RMT's Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) branch, the main section of the union organising offshore energy workers, has a far more radical position than Cash. In its branch bulletin, distributed to all delegates at the AGM, it explicitly argues for a worker-led transition policy, saying: “We should be developing standardised safety and competence/training standards which allow our workers to move seamlessly from oil and gas, to decommissioning and renewables.” In other words, the branch organising the workers in question acknowledges that fossil fuel extraction is unsustainable, and is demanding that their skills be put to use for environmentally sustainable and socially necessary work. Given that this position was pointed out and made reference to during the debate, Cash's attitude was therefore doubly disappointing.
A motion proposing to explore how the historic socialist principle of “workers' representatives on a workers' wage” might be applied within RMT, with specific reference to senior officers' pay, was defeated, with many delegates arguing simply that as union leaders “worked very hard”, they were “worth every penny” of their high salaries (the GS is paid more than £100,000 per year), and that “no union should be arguing for anyone to have their pay cut.” The issue was approached as if it was simply an industrial question affecting a section of the union's membership, rather than an issue of democracy and ensuring officers' pay does not lead to a radical separation between their material conditions and those of the majority of union members. With the new Assistant General Secretary of the PCS union, Workers' Liberty supporter John Moloney, publicly committing to adopting this policy in his own case, and left-wing challenger for RMT General Secretary Sean Hoyle committing to take a reduced salary and donate the difference to the union's disputes fund, it is to be hoped that discussion around this issue will continue.
The conference also passed, by a majority of two votes with six abstentions, a motion proposing the expulsion of Clive Lewis, the Labour MP for Norwich South, from the RMT's Parliamentary Group for criticising comments made by RMT member Eddie Dempsey from the platform of a “Full Brexit” rally. Lewis criticised Dempsey's assertion that Tommy Robinson supporters are “right to hate” the “liberal left”, and his claim that “too many in the Labour Party have calculated that there's a certain section at the top end of the working class that's enough […] along with people from ethnic minorities and liberals, to get them into power.” Lewis argued that these comments set up a dangerous counterposition between “the working class” and “ethnic minorities”, and represent a slippage towards right-wing populism. The motion, and speeches for it, lauded Dempsey as a heroic anti-fascist fighter who was essentially beyond any reproof or criticism. One delegate denounced Clive Lewis as “a Blairite”, a claim that does not survive the slightest comparison with Lewis's actual political record. Others opposed the motion, including several black delegates who expressed alarm at the prospect of the union expelling one of the few black MPs from its group for criticising a white person over an issue of racism. The chair of the RMT Norwich branch, who is also an activist in the union's Black and Ethnic Minority conference, opposed the motion and cited Lewis's strong record of supporting RMT members locally, including by attending picket lines.
The fact that the motion passed, even narrowly, is an indication of the domination of an identitarian conception of “class politics” over a section of the union's activist layer, where class is an “identity” in potential tension and even opposition with other identities. Historic arguments in the union that equalities committees and conferences are somehow divisive - “we're all workers and RMT members, why do we need a women's/BEM/LGBT+/disabled conference?” - are reflective of this same trend. Following the debate, Dempsey (who was not a delegate at the AGM), posted, and then deleted, a gloating tweet crowing about Lewis having been “kicked out”, which he signed off “bye bye, Mr. Pee Pee.” RMT activists who oppose the decision have since written and published an open statement, signed by numerous AGM delegates as well dozens of other union activists, which is online at bit.ly/rmt-cl.
The Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic Union (CFDU), an embryonic attempt to launch a rank-and-file network within the union which will challenge the bureaucracy over issues of union democracy and industrial strategy, held a successful, if somewhat rushed, fringe meeting, which focused mainly on strategy for the DOO disputes, arguing for the return to action on South Western to be generalised across other companies. The CFDU will need to urgently consolidate itself into a formal organisation with an explicit programme for internal reform if it is to be successful in deepening and extending rank-and-file democracy within RMT.
• The printed paper carries an abridged version of this report.