Activists from the RMT union, which mainly covers rail, bus, and sea workers, joined the Vestas workers outside the factory from very early on.
These were not full-time officials, but branch representatives from the RMT Portsmouth branch which organises the Portsmouth-Ryde ferry workers, especially Richard Howard, branch secretary, and Mick Tosh, branch chair.
One way or another, they managed to work their union facility time and leave from work so as to be at the site almost 24/7, providing help and advice. It was a model of what good trade unionists should do: going to the aid of other workers and helping them organise, rather than seeing their job as only to look after the sectional interests of the workers already signed up to their union.
The RMT activists were crucial in helping the workers outside to elect a committee and get organised. As maybe a couople of hundred workers milled around on the Tuesday [21st], AWL member Ed Maltby tried to gather them together in a meeting to elect a committee. He couldn’t hold the crowd. We approached Richard Howard and asked him to make another attempt. He agreed, and, with his experience and the authority of his RMT union insignia, was able to get a committee elected (and identified to the other workers by its members wearing RMT hi-vis vests!)
It took a while more to get the committee operating effectively, but that was the decisive step.
On Thursday RMT general secretary Bob Crow came to Vestas. He announced that the RMT would supply lawyers for the workers and would seek to represent them in negotiations.
On Friday, the RMT brought membership forms to the factory gates, and many workers signed up. From the weekend [25th-26th], full-time organisers from the RMT head office were at the factory.
Yet those few workers who were in a union before 20 July were in Unite, the big general union formed by the merger of TGWU and Amicus. Some had joined in the last few weeks, hoping for the help of a union in the battle to stop the factory closing.
Should RMT have butted out and let Unite organise the workers instead? You could make a case for that — if Unite had shown any interest in doing the job.
In fact, almost every major union has brought support to the workers at one level or another — local branch or national leadership or both — with the exception of Unite!
Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley told the Guardian (24 July): “I think it is absolutely understandable and justified for workers to fight back where they feel there are no other alternatives and employers act badly”. But no Unite representative has visited the workers. We hear that Unite officials from Southampton who wanted to come and give support have been instructed by higher-ups in the union not to do so.
Unite Executive member Tom Cashman visited the protest on Saturday 25th — not, sadly, as a representative of the Executive, but to show his support as an individual trade unionist. He told workers who had quit Unite to join RMT: “The important thing is that you have a union, not an argument about which union it should be”.
Unite is a notoriously bureaucratic union, but even for Unite, the union’s performance here is exceptionally bad. Exactly why is still unclear.
The basic difference between Unite and RMT here is that RMT has a better level of democracy; branches which are much more likely to have secretaries and other activists ready to look beyond their narrow concerns, and full-time officials more responsive to the rank and file.
Not that even the RMT is perfect! The Vestas workers need to keep control over their own dispute and their own negotiations, using help from full-time officials, but never letting them substitute for the workers’ own representatives.
Throughout the trade union movement, the big problem is the role of full-time trade union officials, paid much more than the members they represent, and subject to little accountability (often not even elected). Unite members in other workplaces will need our help to democratise their union, to demand officials paid a worker’s wage and accountable to the members.