Labour and the Unions: We are Throwing Down the Gauntlet

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RMT activist Greg Tucker explains how growing radicalisation is leading to a rift between New Labour and the unions.

The RMT leadership was always proud of the deep links between Labour and the union at all levels. At the top the RMT sponsored half the shadow cabinet and had great expectations of a Labour government. A significant number of union activists had been encouraged to become Labour councillors and at the grassroots the union boasted the highest density of party membership of any trade union.

But faced with the reality of New Labour in government it has been increasingly difficult for the union bureaucracy to defend our links with a Labour Party that is definitely not listening. Critical resolutions passed at RMT conferences in the last two years have in effect issued a yellow card--the Labour Party has been warned, 'Don't expect continued union funding unless you start implementing policies in line with our members' needs.' There is no sign that such a U-turn has taken place.

On the one hand the disastrous attempt to privatise London Underground (LU) continues. Despite the opposition of nearly everyone in London, the government is bending over backwards to find ways of giving the tube away to private contractors. And despite concessions wrung from LU after RMT members took action it is clear that it will be the RMT membership who will bear the brunt of the effects of such privatisation.

On the main line railways the failure to take any steps towards renationalisation has left members utterly disillusioned. Labour's excuses about lack of resources ('Wasn't it more important to invest in hospitals and schools') have been exposed as clear ideological support of the private sector. This flies in the face of the daily experience of RMT members. Their new bosses are getting very rich running an increasingly inefficient system. With public subsidy now three times as high as it was before privatisation, RMT members are saying renationalisation would actually save money that could be used for schools and hospitals.

Such is the disillusionment that at last year's conference the right were reduced to arguing that, despite all its faults, at least Labour was 'our party'--though perhaps it could be improved. But even this rings hollow for most activists. Support for Labour has become irrelevant to helping the union in its struggles. Indeed it is clear that in most cases it is now an obstacle.

In the current dispute on South West Trains Labour's intervention has been firmly on the side of the bosses. Rather than support workers fighting against low pay Labour has been busy behind the scenes--first pushing for the union to call off the dispute, then advising the company to impose a pay award even worse than had previously been offered and finally pressing for binding arbitration.

Some Labour MPs have even flirted with the Tories in suggesting that such binding arbitration should be made compulsory. Just organising the dispute is legally complicated because of the refusal of Labour to seriously address the framework of legislation left by the Tories.

The rank and file

One hundred years ago the ASRS, forerunner of the RMT, was instrumental in the founding of the Labour Representation Committee and thus the Labour Party. This is often presented as if union leaders suddenly awoke one day knowing exactly what to do. But in fact it was the result of a campaign over many years by Independent Labour Party (ILP) activists at all levels of the union.

They had to fight two strands of thought--one which argued that the union needed no political voice whatsoever, and the other, pushed by the bureaucracy, that the existing arrangement, working through the Liberal Party, was quite adequate despite all its faults, though perhaps it could be improved.

Persistent work among the ranks of union members arguing the need for political independence, combined with the force of events--Liberal rail owners attacking members' pay and conditions and Liberal MPs supporting anti-union laws--meant the ILPers won the argument. But even after the formation of the LRC it took another nine years and the forced resignation of the union's general secretary before the battle for independence from the Liberals was concluded.

Today the same battle is being fought. The left of the RMT has thrown down the gauntlet over the question of the use of our political fund. Whilst up to now we have lost resolutions which clearly state the intention to break with Labour, it is inevitable that such sentiments will be expressed with increasing vigour at successive conferences.

For now the approach which has found most favour is to argue for the liberation of the union's political fund to be used as the members see best in each circumstance--for Labour candidates where individuals will support our policies, for other candidates where they won't.

This has already meant the union conference agreeing to meet with Tommy Sheridan and the SSP to discuss campaigning for renationalisation through the platform of the Scottish Parliament. Covert support was given to Ken Livingstone in the GLA elections.

Many RMT branches, no longer able to stomach giving local affiliations to Constituency Labour Parties, have supported independent political campaigning, such as the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, and in practice, if not officially, Socialist Alliance candidates.

Such local moves need to be deepened. And as the deadline for conference resolutions approaches, the battle for the future of our links with Labour needs to be uppermost in the minds of activists drawing up campaigning priorities inside the union.

In the elections under way inside the union for general secretary the lines are also clearly drawn. In his election address the left's candidate, Bob Crow, clearly pledges 'to stop wasting your union subs on those MPs who've let us down'. And in a briefing drawn up by the TUC it is Crow's 'uncompromising attitude towards the Labour Party' which explains why they are working against him.

All of this makes the Socialist Alliance trade union conference very timely. Where we go with the political fund is a vital debate--not just in a broad political framework, but also in the day to day campaign to defend the interests of union members.