Rail union: a step forward for democracy

Submitted by Matthew on 19 November, 2009 - 12:42 Author: Janine Booth

RMT has changed its rules to allow more members to be eligible to be delegates to its Annual General Meeting. This is an important widening of democracy in the union.

Previously, a member could only stand for election as a delegate to the AGM once s/he had been an RMT member for five years, which disqualified 45% of members! Several branches submitted a proposal to cut this to three years to the recent Special General Meeting (SGM), where, despite strong opposition from General Secretary Bob Crow, it was successfully passed.

In proposing the rule change, I argued that the five-year rule was unfair and out-of-date. The transport industry has changed: employment is not nearly as secure as it used to be. Even keeping your job for five years can be quite an achievement!

Those who defend the old rule usually do so on the grounds that we need delegates to have experience and to have proved their loyalty to the union.

However, five years’ membership is no guarantee of five years' active involvement, experience or loyalty. Some people gain more experience in three years of activism than others do in twenty years of passive subs-paying.

Moreover, the Annual General Meeting does not just need experience: it needs fresh ideas. It needs the input of, for example, those Vestas workers who joined RMT this year and who, under the old rule, would not be able to speak for themselves at the AGM for another five years!

The old rule seemed to ensure that you can only attend the body that can change RMT once you have forgotten the changes you once thought it should make! It was a rule that tended towards conservatism in the union, a brake on initiative and change. Maybe that is why the leadership liked it!

Personally, I would like to have seen the qualifying period cut even more, or even scrapped altogether. But that was not what we were debating, and the cut to three years is a step in the right direction. It will hopefully see an influx of new faces at future AGMs, and a greater willingness to consider change and to question established practices and ideas.

Unfortunately, other rule changes proposed by branches were defeated. These were proposals for: a longer period of time to submit amendments to AGM resolutions; a bigger, more representative AGM; and strike committees to be included in the rule book.

Bob Crow opposed all the rule change proposals from branches. His opposition to the proposal about amendments seemed particularly spurious, as it had been passed unanimously at all branches that had considered it, and his argument centred around the idea that two-and-a-half weeks from the resolutions deadline to the publication date was insufficient time for head office to prepare a document!

Bob's speech against the strike committee proposal was also illuminating, as he argued that we should not set up bodies that might disagree with the Executive, and should instead support our national leadership at all times. Bob’s was not the only voice against, though: the majority of delegates were not convinced of these three proposals.

Overall, the Special General Meeting confirmed to me that even in the better, more militant, more democratic unions — such as RMT — the bureaucracy will resist change, but the rank-and-file can win progress if we organise. Our job now is to organise more effectively to push for further democratic change, to put more power in the hands of rank-and-file union members.

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