There has been some talk in the RMT about parting company with the TUC, which seems to be based on three main factors:
- A looming dispute over RMT's forthcoming merger with OILC;
- Fear that the new merged T&G/Amicus super-union will dominate the TUC;
- The fact that the TUC is generally crap.
I want to argue here against those who have been advocating splitting from the TUC.
RMT may be on a collision course with the TUC. On the issue in question, I believe that RMT is right and should not back down. But I don't think we should voluntarily split with the TUC, and I'm worried by some of the attitudes I'm hearing within the union.
So what's the contentious issue? RMT is set to merge with OILC, the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, a 2,000-strong union of oil rig workers formed when a rank-and-file committee split from the AEU (predecessor of Amicus) some twenty years ago.
I'm hoping to dig out some more details of how OILC came into being, but the basics are as follows. In the 1980s, offshore workers were dissatisfied with the AEU, to say the least. In an incredibly dangerous industry, they saw union officials do precious little to improve their conditions, and spend more time doing deals with management than leading the membership in an effective fightback. In 1988, the Piper Alpha disaster killed 167 workers. Workers formed a rank-and-file committee, OILC, to promote their interests. Continuing inaction from the AEU made it untenable for the OILC to remain part of it, and it became an independent union.
AEU and its successors have blocked OILC affiliation to the TUC for nearly twenty years. OILC and RMT are preparing to merge, on the basis of a 'transfer of undertakings' from OILC to RMT. The dispute in the TUC will arise from the fact that Amicus still feels it has a claim on these workers and that OILC is a bunch of splitters who should not be able to get back into the TUC through the back door of merger with the RMT. Which is nonsense, of course. On the first point, it is as logical for offshore workers to be in the RMT as Amicus - RMT has a maritime section, and already organises North Sea divers and other offshore workers. On the second, OILC did not so much split as get driven out by a hostile, anti-rank-and-file bureaucracy. In my view, the merger should go ahead, and if it gets RMT in trouble with the TUC, then tough: the merger should still go ahead.
And the new super-union? The fear of RMT any many other smaller unions is that with 47% of the TUC membership, the super-union will wield a block vote of 47% of the total at TUC Congress, and that therefore, no union will be able to get anything passed without sucking up to Derek Simpson (or whoever). Obviously, the formation of the super-union does imply the prospect of Congress being pretty farcical. In fact, I'd say that the logic behind the formation of a super-union implies that the TUC fails in its most basic task. Yes, the TUC is crap.
But walk out? Without even bothering to fight for a new, more democratic structure? Without any vision of an alternative?! I think that would be, to put it mildly, a mistake.
Some of the arguments I have heard from some RMT activists do not even advocate attempting to set up a new, replacement trade union federation. Rather, they advocate splendid isolation. We can manage on our own, apparently. We're better than any of the other unions. 70,000 members against the world.
In response to a reasonable question from a delegate to the recent RMT Station Grades Conference about how we'd manage without TUC-organised training courses, Assistant General Secretary Pat Sikorski replied that we could manage fine with our new training centre in Doncaster. It's a nice centre, for sure, but it accommodates 16 delegates and is booked up for the next three years! And in any case, wouldn't RMT activists benefit from education and training alongside activists from other unions?!
Parting company from the TUC would also prevent RMT branches from affiliating to local Trades Councils, blocking the potential of effective united local campaigning with other trade unions on issues such as East London line privatisation. And it would remove all barriers to bitter turf wars with other unions, with the TUC backing its own affiliates in encroaching into, for example, the rail industry as a whole (as Amicus is already putting a lot of resources into doing) and the cleaning grades (as T&G has been attempting to do for a couple of years).
In some important ways, RMT is indeed one of the best trade unions in Britain. However, that does not mean that other unions are enemies. It's not a competition. And it does not mean that RMT is not part of a broad labour movement, that railworkers are separate from the rest of the working class. We need organisational links with other unions, and if the existing TUC is not effective, then we should fight to change it rather than just walk away.