"A union General Secretary shouldn’t be like a corporate CEO"

Submitted by martin on 23 March, 2021 - 5:30
John Leach

John Leach, a candidate for general secretary of the rail and transport union RMT, spoke to Solidarity. The ballot is underway and closes on 4 May 2021.

Why are you running for General Secretary?

I stood in this election for two reasons. One, I knew that the union needed a candidate with the qualities I've got. Might sound egotistical but then I am running in this election to win. You need experience, character, and capacity to get things done. And often candidates say this, but I was also asked to run by reps and activists across the union.

The RMT is often billed as a “left wing fighting trade union” What does that mean? And what can make it more effective?

Well it is essential the General Secretary helps that reputation rather than setting it back. I was part of a generation of RMT activists in the 1990s who helped to foster that identity as a fighting union on London Undergound. I want to be part of that going forward.

It means understanding that there is a fundamental difference of interest between us and the employer and the system. And that our job is to organise members and the working class to see things in those terms. We have to fight against that oppression and injustice. So what does that mean?

It means we organise workers, whoever they are in our industries, whether they are cleaners, drivers, deep sea divers or self employed contractors. There are no exceptions in the union. But it also means that we look for where we have power and the power, of course, as a class is in our workplaces. It is unique and we have to be there to win workers round to that. And that is important in the other work we can do. Workers in the environmental movement, fighting against climate change that's important. It isn’t just about those immediate workplace demands. But that is rolled into one when you understand that contradiction between ourselves and the employer.

There is an idea in the labour movement that banging the table, shouting the loudest or being the most macho is what militancy is. What do you make of that?

We need to reach out from within to make the union reflect the members. It isn’t about getting some independent advice about how we can make the union more representative but listening to our equalities committees, carrying out what they decide. In my current role as the elected London Transport Regional Organiser I facilitated a meeting of RMT women members in the region who want to see the union be more proactive and take up their demands not just about safety and ending a sexist culture within the workplace but challenging and eliminating sexism in the union as well. A lot of women were rightly disappointed that the union nationally said nothing on International Women's Day. Those demands of women’s self organisation are important. And the union can and should be ensuring that can happen. And if that means changing radically how we might do things then that is what we have to do. I want to reach out, listen to and empower our members.

You have said you want a political union. The RMT is involved in various political initiatives, but is not affiliated to the Labour party. What do you think the RMT should be doing politically?

People often point to the union constitution and the fact the RMT is a socialist union. And that is important, it does help to drive our identity but not every member is going to agree with that. We have to fight for and persuade people of it. I joined the Labour party again after Miliband stood down, and I don’t intend to leave now, but I am not pushing for affiliation or to change our political orientation as a union. We should be getting our parliamentary group to be proactive for us, putting political pressure to fight for members wherever we need to. I would listen to requests to support candidates, of course I would but it's not my priority.

Covid has been the major challenge for the labour movement over the past year. How do you think the RMT and trade union movement acted in the depths of the crisis and what do you think needs to be done as we approach the end of lockdown and the next phase?

In the depths of the crisis, the trade union movement very nearly gave up the keys to the kingdom and let go of their essential responsibilities to fight for the working class. In London Transport we resisted that move but joint statements and shared employer and union forums were there in sections of the movement.

But the issue being national forced the unions not to give up, pressure from the members was thankfully too strong in the end. And I think we are turning it round. We have got on the front foot against attacks from Network Rail, we are balloting drivers on the Bakerloo line, and balloting in defence of Gary Carney. We are keeping up those fights now and we cannot afford to just be on the defensive. So we cannot let Covid allow us to drop that approach needed. And that needs to be done across the whole labour movement. We know the government is going to come back with a big bill and say someone needs to pay for this crisis, and they will try and pin it on workers. I will bang down the doors and take them off if necessary to say we need to be fighting this, we know the money is there to pay for this and not a penny of it needs to come from us. I will be assertive that we must use the powers we as workers have to fight those oncoming attacks. If we don’t stand up and fight it then we will end up paying it.

What should the RMT be arguing in the wider labour movement and how would you work with the other unions and labour movement if elected?

We cannot just be reactive. We must get out in front. There should be a summit of the unions across the country with a plan for what we are going to do. We should invite the Labour leadership to that, whether they will come or not, and tell them they should be getting behind us. We have to build up that plan. You don't just kind of snap your fingers and think it's going to happen. But we have to do it quickly, to defend jobs and terms and conditions but also to create jobs in the post covid economy, to fight for proper sick and isolation pay from now on. And we know the money is there, the attacks some employers will want to go for now, Covid is their excuse to test the movement. Since 1979 we have experienced this and the only way we will resist this smash and grab of our wages, pensions and jobs is by fighting now. We have to mobilise the movement, and that means taking on the anti-union laws as well. We punch above our weight in terms of our overall size in the labour movement and we should be using that to help organise for the fight ahead.

What do you think the role of the General Secretary is in relation to the rank and file?

General Secretaries are mostly and should be elected and they should carry out their manifesto, they aren’t like the CEO of a company. The members put them in place and that is who they have to be accountable to. We should do what we are told by the membership! The AGM lays out the priorities every year and the NEC in between that, like I have used my current role, the GS should be facilitating the carrying out of union policy. We are the national spokesperson for the union and formally its leader, but you should not be seen as someone with any special power or more right to your view than the members.

What do you think the RMT should be doing internationally? What does international solidarity look like? At the moment the rail workers in Myanmar are playing an important role in the strikes and protests against the coup, what can we do to support groups of workers fighting like that?

Internationally we are part of the ITF (International Transport Federation) and part of that is the opportunity to meet other union leaderships and delegations at international conferences, but it cannot just mean that. I am sure those rail workers unions will be represented there but we should be looking at how we can make practical solidarity with them. Where we can support workers organising on the ground internationally we should be doing so. That might mean literal practical, financial, technical support but also our solidarity for them as trade unionists and as workers. We should be doing that as part of an international movement regardless of where those workers are organising.

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