A member of RMT’s LU Engineering branch explains why it has relaunched the CFDU (Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Union)
It’s said that if you are around long enough, you will see just about everything. Some-times things turn into their opposites and effects can even become causes. Marxists often refer to a process known as ‘dialectics’ where an unforeseen effect of capitalist production, the creation of an industrial working class, can become the gravedigger of the very system that gave birth to it.
Not all changes are so progressive. RMT leaders’ current position on the need to break the anti-union laws is a case in point. The criticisms here are political and not personal - blaming individuals for the unwillingness to break the law is simplistic and ignores the striving of any bureaucracy for self-preservation. But to ignore earlier statements by leaders that they would break the law would be dishonest and cowardly. So I hope to temper my criticisms by pointing out alternatives and reach a balance between pointing out the mistakes in the path the RMT is now treading and helping our union leaders to rediscover their fighting souls.
I joined RMT some 20 years ago and was inspired by a young firebrand Bob Crow who laid out the evils of the anti-union laws and the need to break them. The laws enacted by the Tories are, claimed Tony Blair, “the most restrictive labour laws in the western world”. Bob alerted us that these laws were a thought-out attempt to shackle the unions and prevent industrial militancy and had to be opposed even if it meant facing sequestration. Arthur Scargill had avoided attempts to get NUM funds and RMT could do likewise. Other RMT members coalesced around Bob in the original CFDU and eventually many of its leading lights gained elected positions in the union. Prominent in their campaigning was (they claimed) their willingness to break the anti-union laws.
The fact that something had changed fundamentally first became apparent at this year’s engineering conference in York. A technician complained to Bob Crow that the RMT had told him to cross the signal workers’ picket line and thought that this was inconsistent with the criticism Livingstone had received for telling our Tube workers to do the same. Bob defended the union’s actions, saying that it was unnecessary to involve other grades to win the dispute. In the event the strike didn’t achieve its objectives, but this is beside the point. We are an industrial union organising across all grades: our motto is Unity Is Strength. Every time the RMT forces its members across picket lines that strength is eroded and the collective class consciousness is dented.
Perhaps, I thought, Bob had made only a temporary aberration, but given the chance to redeem himself at a branch meeting he exacerbated the situation. Asked if the RMT would break the law, he answered that it would do so when the rest of the TUC did so. This makes RMT’s ability to fight dependant on such well-known militants as TSSA, USDAW and the 1st Division Civil Servants all deciding to break the law on the same day! This is patently nonsensical - if such an event did occur we should be demanding a revolution not a change to the law!
The General Secretary explained that the anti-union laws were too vicious to break given that individuals could be picked out and sacked (though these same laws were in force before he became leader) and that the union’s funds could be seized (again nothing new). Then Assistant General Secretary Pat Sikorski told us that a dispute on the new London Underground Rule Book had been called off due to a legal opinion (untested in court). It was pointed out that Robert Maxwell used to continue getting legal opinions until he got one that suited! But to no avail - it seems that a single barrister’s opinion can override our democratic processes.
So the wheel has turned full circle. Those who rode into Unity House on the ticket that they would break the anti-union laws are now arguing that the laws be obeyed. Those who toured the country explaining that we could not fight effectively if we obeyed the law are becoming apologists for kowtowing to it.
Our response? Firstly, come out of denial and admit that our leaders’ positions have changed. Secondly, organise combative and democratic elements around the CFDU to ensure our leaders carry out their promises. Having weeks of ‘cooling off’ periods before strikes, banning secondary action, limiting picket numbers and allowing strike leaders to be sacked are going to lead to powerless, docile trade unions in the short term and the death of trade unionism in the long term.
If we do not begin to organise to break these unjust laws then we have no claim to the mantle of those in our movement’s history like the Tolpuddle Martyrs whose sacrifice enabled trade unions to form in the first place. Nearly twenty years of abject submission to the anti-union laws have led even militant workers to see their company or even grade as somehow separate from their fellow union members. We need to urgently reverse the process of people seeing themselves in isolation; we need to forge an organisation capable of countering the pressures of government, the trade union bureaucracy’s fear of sequestration and the outright cowardice of some in the union.
Not only must we be industrially militant but we must also be transparent and democratic - workers will quickly leave authoritarian sects. Attempts to impose militancy without debate may possibly yield short-term gains but are ultimately detrimental.
The name CFDU is appropriate (and should remind some where they came from), because by galvanising fighting democratic elements in branches and regions, we can form a pressure group that will put the RMT where it belongs - at the head of the fight to repeal the anti-union laws by doing so in practice. We still have a world to win.
Welcoming the CFDU: Another View
I welcome the setting up of a new CFDU especially as it has been instigated by activists from a successful strike campaign. I don’t want to set heavy hands on something just starting, but having been involved in its first incarnation I don’t want us to repeat the same mistakes. I won’t try to second guess anybody and unless I specifically say so I’m not suggesting that anybody holds any of the ideas I’m about to criticise.
Experience tells me that if we want democracy and transparency we will need a structure. From the outset the CFDU must act like a labour movement body with agendas, debates, minutes, etc: these things are necessary for delivering democracy and accountability.
It is a bit late to notice that “something fundamentally has changed”! Bob Crow’s performance during the PPP dispute on London Underground from 1998 onwards was what made me believe that he will never be an advocate of unofficial action. As a prominent exponent from start to finish of the strategy that the dispute was over the effects of privatisation, not privatisation itself (as that would have been a political dispute and thus illegal), he did a lot to wrongfoot those militants who really were fighting against privatisation.
On the question of respecting picket lines, there was also a report from a drivers’ meeting in Doncaster last year that Bob was advocating that RMT members should cross ASLEF picket lines. I think you can make a case for sanctioning RMT members in one grade to cross the picket line of another grade of RMT member on strike. This would be the case where both grades of workers are on strike but having either grade out stops the job anyway. For example - drivers and guards on trains. If either grade doesn’t go to work the trains do not run. If guards strike one day and drivers report for work and then the next day drivers strike and guards report for work you get two days of action with each grade only losing one day’s pay. We have seen this type of action recently with the delivery and sorting grades on Royal Mail.
Unofficial action could effectively break the anti-union laws. We should organise it where we can but it can be done in conjunction with continued support for other methods of struggle such as the United Campaign to Repeal the Anti-Union Laws.