In the now-paused dispute over casualisation, all-grades trade unionism was put to the test. How did RMT - the only union which even aspires to unite the grades - measure up?
RMT made the right decision in calling an all-grades ballot. But the union’s leadership took too much time deciding to do so, meaning that the drivers were brought into it late, leaving activists playing catch-up to persuade and motivate them. Worse, the union left out service control from the initial ballot decision, only bringing them in later. Some trains reps worked really hard to convince drivers; others less so, perhaps convincing themselves from the start that it was a hopeless task. But hopeless it was not.
Although there was undoubtedly weakness in drivers’ support for the dispute, this may well not have been as catastrophically bad as some reps claimed (picture Private Fraser in Dad’s Army – “we’re doomed, we’re doomed!”). While unions should respond to lack of support when they come across it, they should also show some faith in their members. RMT drivers have made a choice to join an all-grades union, so are not immune to arguments that the grades should stick together in a fight with the employer. It is possible to convince drivers that station staffing affects them – just talk through the operational incidents in which the grades rely on each other.
The drivers may well have proved to be made of sterner stuff than some union activists feared. The ballot majority was much higher than many predicted (and the low turnout more to do with the short balloting period than with unwillingness to fight). The unions need to focus on those who are willing to take action, not just those who (say that) they are not.
The few leaflets that did come out (including Tubeworker’s own special issue for drivers) made a positive impact. RMT should have produced leaflets addressing drivers earlier, more regularly, and explicitly taking up questions and opposition heard in the depots.
At East Finchley, for example, RMT activists worked long and hard to convince drivers of the issues, and had considerable success. This is not the strongest RMT depot in terms of membership numbers, but after putting in the hours talking, listening and circulating leaflets, activists were confident that RMT members would have given good support to strikes and even that some ASLEF members would respect RMT picket lines.
It is doubtless the case, though, that in some places RMT trains reps worked really hard on the issues, but came up against a brick wall of unwillingness.
The structuring of the ‘shopping list’ dispute did not help. As each grade was brought in on its ‘own’ issue rather than convinced of the common issues, they were prone to dropping their support once ‘their’ issue appeared sorted. For example, service control staff may think they have a good enough result on service control restructuring. But it is also in their interests to fight against de-staffing of stations.
Would RMT have lost driver members to ASLEF by going ahead with strikes? Maybe. But if RMT fails to defeat attacks on station staffing levels, it will also lose members. If LUL gets rid of hundreds of permanent jobs, then that is hundreds of potential members gone. And if the union does not effectively defend its existing members, some of them will leave. For example, RMT lost members when it concluded the 35-hour week dispute with staffing levels slashed, having marched members up the hill only to march them down again. If the union has to lose members, then let’s lose the ones who don’t want to fight rather than the ones who do. But actually, all the evidence suggests that unions grow in size when they fight, not when they give up. That’s why RMT is the fastest-growing union in the country.
It may be that on some lines, RMT has built its membership over recent years without confronting ASLEF’s sectionalism. Reps may have signed up members on the basis of RMT’s representation, campaigning and other qualities, but not especially emphasising its core principle of all-grades trade unionism as against the drivers-only sectionalism of ASLEF. We have no beef with RMT building its membership amongst drivers, but if it does so without confronting the big difference between the two unions, then it becomes vulnerable to exactly what has happened over recent weeks – unconvinced drivers threatening to return to the drivers-only union.
Even with widespread reports of drivers ‘wobbling’, threatening to scab or leave the union, it was wrong for this to be a reason to call off the action. The purpose of balloting drivers was to have effective, cross-grades action – not to give drivers a veto over whether we pursue the fight. We can not act as though drivers are some kind of ‘Jesus pin’ such that when they wobble, the whole thing must collapse. Station staff were more ready than ever to stand up and fight, but ended up being pulled back from the brink by their own unions partly because of drivers’ perceived unwillingness to fight.
There is no short cut. Those of us in favour of all-grades trade unionism – for one union for all grades of railway workers – have to take up and win the argument, and have to accept that this will bring us into conflict with those who believe the opposite: that there are elite grades that should have their own union.
How can we win that argument? Not by capitulating to it. If we avoid tackling the issue head on, then we will always be vulnerable to the sniping of the sectionalists, and will again and again find ourselves saying that this or that battle has to called off because sectionalist poison means that drivers are not willing to fight. As one rep said at last week’s RMT meeting, your job as a rep is not to cry with your members but to offer them solutions.
We now need a campaign of political education to get reps and activists confident in winning the argument for cross-grade solidarity. And we need to ensure that for the next fight, we are in a fitter state to carry out that principle rather than just laud it.