RMT Regional Organisation Conference 29/8/08
The following is a report of the organisational conference on 29 August requested by branches and facilitated by the Region.
The day began with a general assessment of some recent disputes, including those involving TfL, Metronet, Tubelines, and the fight against Casualisation within LUL, with a view to establishing what the union did well and where it did badly.
It was agreed that of all the recent disputes, the Metronet strike was probably the most successful in terms of what was gained. This was due to the solidity of the strike which ensured that LUL didn’t even try to run any services until it was over. Three positive things were identified as having brought about this strength of support for the strike amongst the members:
- Local reps had spent years of hard work building up solid organization within Metronet
- Regular workplace meetings had been held in the lead up to the action, meetings which informed members of what was going on and which built support for the strike
- There was an effective, elected strike committee
Looking at some of the other disputes, it was clear that we had often gained little. The discussion identified the following areas of concern:
- Inter-grade solidarity is at a low level
- There is a perceived lack of militancy amongst drivers
- Lack of consultation by negotiators – this was mentioned particularly in relation to the recent casualisation dispute with LUL
- Lack of Strike Pay combined with domestic financial situation of most members makes any sustained strike action extremely difficult
- Lack of rank and file input into union
- Communications within the union are often too slow and members have sometimes found themselves in the dark about the reasons for a dispute
- Union needs a positive agenda with rank and file input and for which members can be encouraged to fight – presently, we only seem to be responding to management’s agenda
- Resolutions made at the Regional Council and union AGM are not always carried out
The meeting then split into workshops with each one analysing a recent dispute. Strengths and weaknesses were examined, as were any tactics and strategies used during the disputes, and ideas to strengthen the union were discussed.
There are lots of issues at TfL. Local reps brought all these issues together into one dispute which led to the first ever strike by TfL members. RMT is facing opposition from management and other unions at TfL, who are colluding to exclude our union. TfL is refusing to recognise RMT in all but one department. LUL reps from RMT are being prevented from representing TfL members, even though they have the legal right to be represented by LUL reps (Employment Tribunal cases are currently in process on this issue).
A recruitment strategy was needed that would target the weakest areas within TfL. It is also important to gain recognition in more areas, so that reps can be elected to represent the members. At present, the lack of representation is causing many staff to shy away from joining the union. Another suggestion was that the union could appoint Health and Safety reps (under Health and Safety law) in order to create a new presence for the union at TfL; these reps could then take on an Industrial Rep role as well.
Stations Casualisation Dispute
A number of issues, including planned ticket office closures, mobile supervisors and other attacks on working conditions, were brought together by the union into a single dispute. There were a number of problems and shortcomings associated with this dispute.
- Our union was, amazingly, beaten to the industrial action ballot by the TSSA, a union which has not taken strike action since 1926. This meant that we found ourselves following on TSSA’s coattails and ended up naming the same three days of proposed strike action as TSSA with very little time to prepare
- There was insufficient campaigning on the issues in dispute
- An all-grades dispute was the union’s aim, but the fact was that drivers were generally not on board, and this would have been a potentially fatal weakness had the strike gone ahead (it didn’t, for this very reason)
- There were complaints from many members about the affordability of three days’ loss of pay (see 1 above)
- The shopping list nature of the dispute made it easy for management to placate different sections and thus weaken our position
- The strike committee was not proactive enough and its meetings were poorly attended
- There were no mass meetings and no political education was carried out
The outcome to the dispute was that most of the worst management plans were stalled, including ticket office closures – for now, at least. A partial victory. However, on the downside, we failed to act as an all-grades union. There is the growing fear that new Mayor Johnson will try and buy off certain sections of our membership and also force through a multi-year, no-strike deal.
The big question is how to unite the grades, so that an all-grades union becomes a reality rather than merely a mantra. We need to look at our structures below, rather than always relying on Head Office. We need to build a bigger activist base. Working class consciousness has taken an ideological battering over the last 30 years, and we need to understand that and find ways of countering the individualist onslaught. We need to establish our position regarding the anti-union laws; do we accept them or challenge them? The question was raised concerning why no vote was taken before the strike was called off, though it was accepted that the decision did reflect the general consensus within the strike committee.
The meeting was surprised to learn that of 1000 voters, only 280 had voted to strike, 220 had voted not to strike and 500 had failed to vote at all. This raised some important questions. Was the membership list for Tubelines up to date? Why were Tubelines reps claiming that members were 100% for the strike when, in hindsight, they were not? In fact, two of the four ERU depots were preparing to scab. Another weakness was the lack of support from other grades, especially drivers who, it had been hoped, would have refused to drive trains on grounds of safety during the strike. Because of these weaknesses, the strike was called off at the last minute. Some gains were made from the company, but it was felt that we were fortunate to even get them in the circumstances.
Why can we not ballot drivers for action short of a strike, instead of merely hoping that individuals will refuse to drive during such disputes? Such a ballot would also have the effect of raising the issues involved, so that they were better understood by drivers. Even if such a ballot returned a ‘no’ vote, the individual option would still be there for drivers to refuse to work on safety grounds.
We need a forum to unite all the grades - all-grades newsletters, for example. A newsletter encouraging drivers to work normally was put out by ASLEF but we did little to counter it. We should also start to build lists of members’ email addresses and text numbers and use these methods of communication to keep people informed. Local reps should also be checking that everyone receives a ballot paper for future proposed strikes, as membership records are often not up to date.
The meeting then went on to consider the 2009 pay claim. With the country now in recession and inflation rampant, we need to decide exactly what we want from this next pay award. It was agreed that the union’s starting position is for a one-year deal; however, as was also pointed out, this policy has already been undermined by the two-year deal just agreed with TubeLines.
It was agreed that we needed to unite the issues of pay and the current management attacks upon us. Pay has, in the past, been an issue to unite the grades, so the three-year deal with LUL now coming to an end has meant that that unifying factor has been absent. The union needs to begin education and propaganda amongst the members about the real level of inflation, especially in London and the south-east. We also need to somehow unite the grades over the issue of a flat rate pay increase to narrow the differential between our lowest paid members and the rest. The pay claim needs to have much greater rank and file input so that members can identify with it and be more prepared to take action to achieve it. The pay claims should be put in to all the companies before the New Year in order to maintain unity and to give us time to build up a head of steam amongst the members if our claims are not met. It was noted that, at TfL, the other unions seemed happy to accept a multi-year deal. At LUL, we need to be aware of ASLEF’s claim which will likely lead to division amongst staff. Another possible element to the pay claim could be a 4-day, 32-hour week; this is something around which members could be rallied to fight for.
Whatever eventually goes into our claim, it is important to get it out to all members and to give local reps a programme of action to prepare everyone for a fight. If we develop our claim early and start to build support for it amongst the members, then we will give ourselves a real chance to deliver.