At the end of the tunnel?

Submitted by Janine on 5 September, 2004 - 9:34

Tony Byrne recommends a new pamphlet about the privatisation of London Underground

The fight against Tube privatisation lasted for almost five years. It started with a demonstration on 13 February 1998 to mark John Prescott’s official announcement of the Labour government’s plans for privatising London Underground’s (LU) infrastructure, under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme. An official RMT circular accepting defeat signalled the end of the dispute on 20 December 2002.
Ultimately it was an unequal struggle: the labour movement failed to rally to the aid of tube workers. Nor was the wider public mobilised, so that widespread opposition to privatisation could be converted into political pressure.
It might be possible to put the defeat down to low combativity in the labour movement and the mood of the general public. But there is another side to the equation: the ability of the tube workers themselves and their unions to mount a fight.
Was there anything different that the leaderships, activists and members could have done to inspire and draw the labour movement and the public into the campaign against PPP? Tunnel Vision, a new pamphlet by Workers’ Liberty and Solidarity, is an attempt to provide an answer to this question.
This is largely about of the fight waged by the RMT and its supporters in the Campaign against Tube Privatisation (CATP) (though the other two unions, TSSA and ASLEF, could also have done much more to wage the fight).

The pamphlet is divided into three sections; a background includes items on the anti-union laws, the Labour Party and some previous disputes; the story section details the fight against the privatisation of LU infrastructure; a “future” section draws some conclusions from the dispute with pieces proposing a future organisation for all rail and tube workers and the sort of political party they need together with some suggestions for a positive strategy for the tube, its workers and its users.
The first two sections are also a useful potted history of the RMT politically and industrially during the last decade. But the emphasis concerning what the dispute was about could have been different. For instance I think that the following passage could cause some confusion and give the impression that we were striking only to maintain terms and conditions against the demands set down in the PPP plan:
“It [the RMT] had decided early on to fight PPP on employment demands only, rather than taking on privatisation head-on. The fruit of this policy was that when those limited demands appeared to be met, the union settled” [page 44]
It needs to be said more forthrightly that the RMT’s industrial campaign was against PPP. It might have said striking against “the effects of PPP” on the ballot paper this was a ploy to get around the anti-union laws; obeying the letter but not the spirit of the law. I think that was the generally accepted wisdom amongst the leadership, activists and some members within the RMT.
We were striking against privatisation but some in the leadership used semantics to justify giving up the fight against PPP by switching it to a fight against its effects. This separation of the political from the industrial dispute was neatly summarised by Bob Crow when he was selling the deal to us:
“I won’t play politics with people’s jobs.”
That said, the pamphlet has many strengths, not least the way it makes the connections between the industrial struggles and the politics that box them in.
For instance the pamphlet details an example of bureaucratic manipulation when RMT reps rejected the new PPP-inspired Health and Safety machinery. It was a useful stalling tactic.
This came as a shock to the regional leadership. They didn’t like the stalling tactic, so they manoeuvred to get the decision reversed. The union leaders said we wouldn’t be able to take part in meetings with management, and if somebody was disciplined we wouldn’t be a part of the machinery! As if the ultimate arbiter of what we can do for our members is determined by what meetings our reps went to!
This is a bureaucrat’s view of the world which needs to be replaced by that of an active rank and file. As the pamphlet says those bureaucrats had failed to learn the lessons of the fight against privatisation on British Rail. [page 30]
The final part of Tunnel Vision is the most important.
The RMT has developed as a union: the pamphlet acknowledges this by comparing its virtual inactivity on mainline privatisation to the fight against tube privatisation. But other things could be better: our political stance and the role of the rank and file for example. The pamphlet sets out a way forward on these issues and others. To carry out these changes we need a core of activists, and the section entitled “The Fantasy Union of Railworkers” will form a good basis for the discussion that will knit that group of activists together.
If industrially ASLEF can be criticised because it only supports those who say nice things about train drivers, politically the same kind of criticism can be made of RMT which will support anybody, the only proviso being that they should say nice things about trains.
The RMT leadership likes to talk up its industrial union credentials but doesn’t apply the same logic to the political arena. It fails to see that in the long term railworkers have more in common with other workers than with middle class liberals who share our call for renationalisation but not much else.
In both unions they miss the point of workers’ solidarity. The RMT’s “single union syndicalism” [page 61] is the craft unionism of the political sphere, a kind of socialism in one union that is now expressing itself through the bureaucratic dream of becoming bigger.
Hopefully, this pamphlet will spark a debate about the key issues in the unions. Too often we spend time theorising in abstraction about rank and file control, the effects of the anti-union laws and industrial tactics and strategies, but here we have a chronology of and commentary on a five year struggle written by union activists. We can fruitfully use it as the raw material from which to draw lessons and prepare the future.

• Have you read Tunnel Vision? Do you want to contribute to a discussion on the issues raised. Get in touch, telephone 020 7207 3997.

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