"The union should be led from the workplace"

Submitted by AWL on 15 January, 2013 - 9:13

Peter Pinkney was elected national president of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers union (RMT) in December 2012. Workers’ Liberty members in RMT supported his election bid. Peter spoke to Solidarity in a personal capacity.

I stood on a platform of wanting to minimise the distance between the leadership of the union and the members at a workplace and branch level. So my priority will be getting out to workplaces and talking to people. I want to base the initiatives I take as President on what members at a rank-and-file level want.

I’ve begun doing some of that already, and the main issues that people are raising are to do with job cuts. There’s a fear of redundancy. My own job is under threat; I may not have a signal box to go back to work in when my term of office ends in three years’ time.

There’s also a great deal of concern about the consequences of reductions in staffing levels. Guards are worried about the possible introduction of driver-only trains, and station staff and train despatchers are very worried about the implications of staffing levels for passenger safety. The incident at Liverpool James Street, where a woman was killed boarding a train and the guard has been given five years in prison, has worried a lot of people. If staffing levels keep being reduced, there’ll only be one person responsible for despatching the trains and that sort of accident will increase.

It’s not just about defending jobs now, it’s about defending staffing levels so workers in the future will have jobs to go into. Where I work, on Network Rail, the RMT has already negotiated the PT&R deal (Promotions, Transfers, and Redundancies). There’s a fight to make sure Network Rail sticks to that. They’re out to slash jobs by building “super boxes” that amalgamate signalling boxes across entire regions into a central box. Thousands of jobs are at risk, and I honestly don’t know how we can respond to that. The scheme is already underway.

We have a signallers’ conference in February which will discuss the issue, and I’ll be taking my lead from there. If the reps and activists at that conference want to fight, we’ll fight. I don’t believe the Executive and the national officers should be having the final about industrial strategy and disputes. I think the rank-and-file voice should be listened to.

I do believe we’re in a position to go on the offensive about staffing levels on stations. It’s clear that passengers feel safer with higher staffing levels, and having more staff also makes public transport more accessible for disabled people. Management will be trying to push through driver-only trains on the mainline, and driverless trains on London Underground, so we need an offensive campaign that makes the positive case not only to defend the status quo but increase staffing levels.

My presidency runs until 2015, so will include a general election. We’ll work with Labour MPs who agree with us on the key issues, but I don’t have much faith that the Labour Party can be pushed into renationalising the railways once they’re back in government. They commissioned the McNulty Report, and had policy to renationalise the railways for many years during their last spell in government and didn’t do it.

The union’s political strategy certainly needs to be widened beyond the current support for TUSC, which I believe is too exclusive and doesn’t include a wide enough cross-section of the left. Ultimately what we need is a British version of Syriza, which can unite the political left and radical social movements. Such an initiative would hopefully take a section of Labour MPs with it, as well as winning support from unions.

My fundamental aim as president is to help make the union more rank-and-file led. We need to train reps and activists to build grassroots strength. When we recruit, that has to be on the basis of engaging workers with the issues they’re most concerned about in the workplace and making the union an accessible for them to fight around those issues. The union should be led from the workplace level up.

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