RMT: democracy needed

Submitted by AWL on 10 November, 2020 - 8:05 Author: From Off the Rails
RMT picket line

RMT General Secretary Mick Cash has announced his retirement, only a year into his second term. The announcement was made during a chaotic Annual General Meeting, conducted online. Many delegates and union activists had criticised various aspects of AGM proceedings, including a decision by the union’s National Executive to curtail its length once the national lockdown had been announced, and a decision not to allow motions relating to any event later than June 2020, the date at which the AGM was initially scheduled to take place.

The particular trigger for Cash's retirement was the AGM's decision to overturn the decision of the National Executive to issue a disciplinary sanction to Assistant General Secretary Steve Hedley for writing on Facebook in June that he would “throw a party” if Boris Johnson died of Covid. Cash had indicated that, should the AGM fail to uphold that sanction, which he fully supported, he would retire due to “his authority” having been undermined.

Whatever one's views on the rights of wrongs of Hedley's comments, or Cash's response to them, for Cash to retire because an AGM voted against his decision is the action of a bureaucrat who can not accept decisions that do not go the way he wants, and who wants power centralised in his own hands.

The wider background to Cash's retirement is an ongoing conflict inside RMT, whereby Cash and core of officers loyal to him have attempted to assert themselves as the leadership of the union, with Cash going as far as to outright refuse to fulfil his constitutional duty to carry out the instructions of the lay National Executive Committee. The NEC has been an inconsistent and faltering voice for democracy in the union over the past few years, often failing to adequately challenge the GS and hold him to account. Having become somewhat more assertive recently, both Cash and the RMT's other Assistant General Secretary, Mick Lynch, have accused the NEC of “bullying and harassing” them. (For further background to this, see this article.)

Bullying is a real problem in RMT. As we wrote previously, in response to the dismissal, later overturned, of a union organiser who had been off work with mental health problems:

“Many activists are now calling for an externally-run investigation into these matters, so RMT members can comprehensively assess how our union is operating as an employer, and how the officials, both elected and appointed, who staff it are treated, particularly in terms of workplace mental health and bullying. [We] supports those calls. It is unlikely to be an easy process, and its findings may be bitter, but dragging the problems into the light is the first step to fixing them. The ultimate responsibility for the union ridding itself of these problems lies with the union itself, and crucial to this is rank-and-file members asserting our right to a democratic and effective union free of bullying.”

The NEC has now agreed to commission an independent investigation. It must be rigorous, open to all members to give evidence, and its recommendations acted on. Cash himself has been outspoken about the impact of recent events on his mental health, impacts for which he deserves support. But a distinction must be drawn between bullying, and legitimate criticism and democratic dissent.

In the election to replace Cash, Lynch and Hedley are both likely to be candidates, as are former National Presidents John Leach and Sean Hoyle. Workers' Liberty supporters in RMT have long-standing criticisms of Hedley's politics and record - see this article from 2015, and this report from the 2019 AGM. We hope the election can be used as an opportunity not to discuss what kind of individual “leader” we need, but how we as workers can organise to develop our own collective strength and power, something urgently needed given the struggles now facing us.

As we wrote previously:

“It is, to say the least, regrettable timing that the conflict has broken during an acute economic crisis, with thousands of RMT members facing potential attacks on our terms and conditions and widespread job losses. The union urgently needs to gear up to resist those attacks and make counter-offensives to defend and extend our rights and power. But questions of internal organisation and reform cannot be avoided simply by stressing the urgency of the industrial situation. The union will be radically less effective as a tool for fighting those battles than it could be – than we need it to be – unless the internal questions are addressed and the problems fixed.

“We need a democratic union, led from the shop floor up, where power lies as close to the workplace, the point of production, as possible. That is how we can forge the union into the most effective weapon possible for fighting our immediate industrial battles. Anything that inhibits that, anything that increases the distance between rank-and-file members in the workplace and decision-making in the union, must be resisted. In order to organise such resistance, we need an independent rank-and-file network.”

Cash's statement to members announcing his retirement suggested a bureaucratic, service-provision-based conception of trade unionism. The statement said: “From now until my successor is elected, the membership must have the confidence that we are fully behind them and will continue with the exceptional level of service only we provide.”

The model of trade unionism suggested here is one in which “the union”, run by its officers and staff, is external to “the membership”, such that it can be “fully behind them”, providing them with an “exceptional level of service.” Against that model, we need to fight for a combative, assertive vision of what trade unionism can be, in which the union is not understood as an external service-provider but a weapon fully in the hands of its members, which they can use to win struggles at work.

• Republished from the Off the Rails blog here
• Workers' Liberty supporters are involved in the Campaign for a Fighting, Democratic Union, a network bringing together RMT activists to discuss rank-and-file organisation in the union.

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