Yesterday, RMT's General Grades Committee (the Executive minus the Shipping representatives) voted to cancel the union's dispute with the employers over the Rule Book, using a legal hitch as a pretext. The union has voluntarily abandoned a battle before it had even really started. It is a shocking failure of leadership.
By going into dispute over the Rule Book, RMT had lifted itself above the other unions, which have shown no sign of a fight. Now it has lowered itself back down to their level.
At a mass meeting two weeks ago, the whole meeting was united in its view that we needed an active fight and immediate moves to a dispute, and opposed the more cautious 'strategy' advocated by Assistant General Secretary Pat Sikorski. The National Executive went along with the meeting's expressed views, and five days later (why not the next day?!) wrote to the companies stating that if they did not withdraw the Rule Book within seven days, RMT would be in dispute with them. With no positive reply from the employers, on Tuesday (29th May) RMT went into dispute.
The mass meeting had also discussed producing a letter and pro forma enabling staff to refuse to work on safety grounds from the day (31st May) the Rule Book was to be imposed. When head office failed to produce it, a safety representative did. TfL phoned RMT to say that they thought it made any ballot illegal, and the Executive, supported by AGS Sikorski, got cold feet and cancelled the dispute.
The vote on the GGC was 6-4, with our Regional representative, Olly New, one of the minority voting to keep the dispute going. But it will now take more than voting the right way to rescue this dispute from the bureaucrats who are intent on sabotaging it. We need genuine leadership, and an Executive rep prepared to champion the Region's rank and file against cowardice at the top of the union.
This vote - GGC reps from other regions outvoting the LT rep and those prepared to support him - shows why decisions on disputes should be made by elected representatives (or mass meetings) of the workers involved, not by a GGC where only one of the thirteen members is elected by and accountable to us.
Yesterday's Regional Council was united in its opposition to the GGC's climbdown, with not one delegate prepared to defend the decision. Activists recognised that if the union backs down because of a legal threat, then it is an invitation to employers - all they have to do is ring up and mention the law and the union will surrender. One thing that is quite shocking here is that it only took a phone call from the employer - not even a letter from a lawyer, let alone an application to a court or an actual injunction - to give the union the shivers.
But maybe for Sikorski, the legal issue was also a convenient way of getting the union to revert to his non-strategy of going back to talks with management and avoiding a dispute. He reassured us that if we were worried that the Rule Book would usher in Station Supervisor job cuts, then we did not need to fight the Rule Book - we could wait until the SS jobs were attacked and strike then! He overlooks the fact that by then, Supervisors would have very few engineering-hours duties, so it would be harder to defend the continuation of night turns. If you can see an attack coming, there is no sense covering your eyes until it is right upon you.
Sikorski quoted precedent for calling off disputes on legal grounds, but his example did not hold water. He quoted the New Year's Eve strike of 1998/9 (click and scroll down), ruled illegal by 'Justice' Sullivan. However, the union did not call off that strike until it was actually ruled illegal by the courts; and it immediately reballoted. But what about a different example? - the PPP strike in April 2001 (reported further down the article in the previous link): the courts ruled RMT's strike illegal, but members walked out of the door anyway, supported by (some of) their union leaders.
So what is the legal issue this time? There is an anti-union law that allows employers to have strikes declared illegal if they are 'tainted' by previous unofficial action. It is blatantly designed to prevent unofficial industrial action being made official ie. to stop unions responding to and supporting their members' actions. Like all the anti-union laws, it is a vile piece of class-biased legislation, a weapon in the hands of employers against workers who want to fight back. Midland Mainline successfully used this law against RMT in 2005, heightening the union leadership's sensitivity and fear of it.
Tubeworker has its disagreements with the rep who produced the leaflet and pro forma, and perhaps he should have been more careful. But the AGS and the GGC majority are bang out of order to use it as a pretext to abandon the dispute. After all, if they had wanted a leaflet that stayed within the law - they should have produced one! But bar the odd circular, there has been no material for members about this issue from head office. We do not need either scapegoats or martyrs - we need a fight to defeat the Rule Book.
What should the union do now? Put this dispute back on. Immediately.
RMT's climbdown comes after two months of fevered leaflet-producing by our reps, which itself came after a year of full-time release reps taking part in a ‘consultation’ exercise which management treated with contempt. Although some union reps fed information to their members about what was going on, others did not. This lack of accountability contributed to the ‘rabbits-in-headlights’ paralysis now gripping the unions.