Michelle Rodgers works for Arriva Rail North, where she is a local RMT rep. She sat on the union’s National Executive Committee from 2014-2017, and is the secretary of RMT Manchester South branch. She is standing to be the union’s next national president; Tubeworker is supporting her campaign. We spoke to Michelle about her approach to trade unionism and why London Underground workers should vote for her. Ballot papers will be delivered to RMT members’ home addresses from 1 October. Speak to your local rep to ensure your details are up-to-date.
Q: How would you explain the role of the president to an RMT member who isn’t necessarily engaged in the structures of the union?
A: The president is there to ensure the union is run democratically, in an open and participatory way, and that members’ voices are heard. It is the highest “lay” position in the union, rather than being an “officer” position; this means that the president is released from their job for a three-year term before going back to work. The president is a voice for the grassroots membership in the national leadership of the union, helping to ensure the union takes its direction from the wishes of the members.
Q: What kind of president would you be?
A: I cut my teeth in a lengthy unofficial strike in 1993. That taught me a lot. The key lesson I learnt was that as workers, our power ultimately comes from our ability to withdraw our labour. I’m well aware of all the industrial issues London Underground workers are facing, across all grades, as well as the major political issue of the Tories’ cuts to TfL funding, and the struggles of outsourced workers like cleaners. Our best means of winning change on all of these is through coordinated industrial action. RMT has a proud history of helping members organise to take action; as president, I’d ensure that any group of workers who wanted to take action to improve their conditions at work were supported and encouraged in doing that, rather than being dissuaded or held back.
With the “Corbyn surge” in Labour, we’ve seen a lot of young people energised by radical politics and inspired to get active. We need something similar in the trade union movement, including RMT. As president I’d work to make our union as open and democratic as possible, as well as continuing and developing our militant traditions, to ensure members could take ownership of union structures and use the union to fight for change at work.
The three key principles of my campaign are “democracy, equality, solidarity”. Democracy, because as president I’d work to ensure the union’s democracy was upheld and extended so rank-and-file members can lead; equality, because I fight for a socialist society based on equality, and because I want to advance equality within the union; and solidarity, because it’s only by standing together with each other and taking action as workers that we can win change.
Q: The workforce in many parts of London Underground, especially on stations and amongst cleaners, is very diverse; if elected, how will you ensure the full diversity of the unions’ membership is represented?
A: I am the equalities candidate in this election. It was debates in our union, including in the pages of RMT News, around equalities that finally spurred me on to stand. I’m a strong believer that all the equalities campaigns within the union – women members, LGBT members, BAME members, and disabled members – should be empowered, so they’re better able to make sure members from these backgrounds, who are often under-represented in the union, are at the heart of what the union does.
Q: How will help members, who may currently see the union as a kind of “insurance policy” that’s only relevant to them if they get in trouble, become more engaged and active?
A: Union reps and activists can sometimes become insular, only really talking to people who are already involved. We need to turn outwards. As a local rep, I’ve made particular efforts to engage with new members, and especially young members, about what the union is and how they can get active. They’re now amongst our core branch activists. I’ve also ensured our branch meetings have enough time on their agenda to allow any member to come along and have their workplace issues discussed. As president I’d work with everyone – from NEC members down to local reps – to build that same culture of openness and participation throughout the whole union. The union is all of us, and it belongs to all of us.
Q: The pressures of working life, including shift work, as well as the pressures of being a union rep and activist, can lead to burnout, and mental health issues. There is a growing conversation about mental health in society; how would you continue that conversation within the union?
As a local rep and branch officer, my door is always open. That would be my policy if elected as national president. My door would always be open to any member. We need to be open and honest with each other about pressures we’re facing, and mental health issues we may be experiencing. The union should be a supportive environment for all members. We’re starting to take those issues more seriously, with some excellent courses on mental health awareness at work, and how reps can organise to fight for positive change at work around these issues, being run via our National Education Centre. I’d support those efforts and encourage as many reps and activists as possible to attend.
Q: There’s sometimes a frustration that, when we pass resolutions through our RMT branches, they seem to get lost in union officialdom or knocked back for bureaucratic reasons. What would you do as president to improve that?
A: I will be in constant communication with your elected reps and officers at all levels, from workplace reps to branch officers to your National Executive member, to ensure that the resolutions you pass through your branches are responded to and acted on as swiftly as possible. I’m not afraid to stand up to national officers like the General Secretary and Assistant General Secretaries when necessary. The union must be led by the democratic decisions of our members. The president is there to ensure that happens.
The “Piccadilly Four” strike, and what it taught me about trade unionism
I cut my teeth in the union in a lengthy strike, which began as unofficial action, in 1993. The employer at the time was still British Rail, and I was working out of Manchester Piccadilly station as a guard. Our reps were negotiating with management about rosters, and the talks had reached an impasse. There was an agreed procedure for what should happen next, but instead of following it, our bosses decided to sabotage the negotiations. They ripped up papers in the meeting, told the reps they’d be imposing the rosters whether we, the workers, liked it or not, and stormed out.
The next day the rosters were imposed, so we walked off the job. It was a spontaneous, wildcat strike. We just walked off our trains. The impact showed me the power that workers’ action can have.
The bosses accused our reps of inciting us to take unofficial action, as sacked them. That just made us more determined to fight. We were on unofficial strike for three-and-a-half weeks. We had mass meetings of guards in a club near Manchester Piccadilly. I was driving round union branches in the region collecting for our strike fund. That taught me a lesson too, about the need for the union to be prepared to support members taking sustained industrial action financially. When I was on the National Executive, I consistently pushed for proper strike funds to support our members taking action against Driver Only Operation. If elected president, I’d work with NEC members and reps to make sure we did that.