Editorial: RMT action changes the debate

“An ounce of action” by the working class, Karl Marx’s great collaborator Friedrich Engels is reputed to have said, “is worth a ton of theory” in developing awareness on a mass, societal scale.

And so it has proved again with the RMT rail worker strikes at the end of June, following on the biggest trade union-led demonstration in a decade on June 18, which have touched the consciousness of millions of people in Britain and internationally too.

The propaganda offensive against the RMT has also in its own way helped to showcase the power of the working class once it is prepared and organised to fight.

BBC presenters from the UK’s very own ‘state-affiliated media’ sometimes tried a line – even as they broadcasted from a deserted station concourse – that the strikes were not as impactful “as expected” (by who? compared to what?), while real-time retail data had high street footfall across Britain down 8.5% in a week and 27% in central London.

But the general routine across the capitalist press and TV, with different degrees of subtlety, was to denigrate the union for ‘holding the public to ransom’, selfishly making demands that would ‘cripple the economy’, and even accusations of being ‘Putin’s friend’.

The capitalist establishment has been sorely rattled by the biggest strikes organised by the RMT since its formation in 1990.

Not least has been their fear of the impact of the RMT’s action on other workers, raising their confidence to fight the unfolding cost of living crisis.

The Office for National Statistics recorded a 4.5% fall in regular pay in April once adjusted for inflation (and excluding bonuses), the biggest drop in at least two decades.

No wonder that most public opinion polling, even though generally slanted against the labour and trade union movement, finds broad sympathy for the rail workers.

One Ipsos poll that showed an even split over the strikes still found 61% agreeing that ‘workers have too little power’.

Since the RMT’s strike announcement in early June there have been ballot victories for strike action by BA check-in workers at Heathrow, and Stagecoach bus drivers in Merseyside, joining the ongoing Arriva bus strikes in Yorkshire.

Ballots are underway for ASLEF drivers and Transport Salaried Staff Association members on the railways, and Arriva bus workers in north-west England.

Outside transport there are ballots, and ongoing action, in Royal Mail, BT, and the post office, and pending pay battles by teachers, civil servants and health workers.

In local government the Johnson Tory leadership are preparing new restrictions on councils against the backdrop of a pay claim for £2,000 or a minimum RPI-linked rise (currently 11.1%) for 1.4 million workers (see the article in this issue, Resetting The Council Cuts Battleground).

The catalyst effect has gone deep into the middle-class, with striking barristers outside the Old Bailey applauding the RMT banner when solidarity was given to their walkout at the end of June.

Delegates at the British Medical Association (BMA) conference also referenced the rail workers’ action when they voted for a pay claim for doctors of up to 30% to reverse the real-terms salary cut suffered since 2008.

Meanwhile the RMT general secretary Mick Lynch “has garnered a cult following online” for his media appearances against “fulminating interviewers”, The Guardian reported, “getting millions of clicks and celebrity endorsements from the likes of Hugh Laurie and Irvine Welsh”. (25 June)

A clear presentation of basic class arguments in defence of workers’ interests, and the action needed to achieve them, cuts through.

Socialism Today has consistently pointed out, often against others on the left, that trade unions are the basic core organisations of the working class, which gives them a far greater weight in society even than other comparatively sized voluntary associations.

For long periods, it is true, the formal structures in some unions can atrophy with limited participation by rank and file members – which is not the case, though, with the RMT – but even these still possess enormous social reserves which, at critical times, can enable them to shape events, becoming a ‘subjective factor’.

The working class is beginning to put just such a stamp on affairs through its developing struggle against the cost of living crisis.

Now the tasks for those in the movement prepared to fightback are to organise and co-ordinate strike action – and take the steps needed to realise a new workers’ politics too.

‘Why call themselves Labour?’

“If we just get this bland democratic party sitting in the centre of politics”, said Mick Lynch in a Sky News interview in the run-up to the strikes, “and not actually getting behind workers’ struggles, you have to ask yourself, why do they call themselves the Labour Party?”. (The Telegraph, 29 May)

The rail workers’ fight, he went on, will be “a measure for Keir Starmer so that he can decide whether he is on the side of the workers in this country or on the side of the bosses”.

The aim of the Starmer leadership to re-set Labour after Corbynism as a Tony Blair-style capitalist New Labour party has been clear – in the process removing all possibilities of the working class, through the trade unions, using it as a vehicle to advance its interests politically.

But the answer to Mick Lynch’s specific challenge could not have been more emphatic.

As the first RMT strike day approached, a memo came from the Labour leader’s office “reminding” shadow cabinet members that they “should not be on picket lines” and that they should instruct their frontbench juniors to stay away too.

Days later, questioned whether he supported the BA Heathrow workers fighting to restore a 10% pay cut imposed on them during the Covid pandemic, the shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy replied: “No, I don’t. It’s a no. It’s a categorical no”. (BBC Sunday Morning, 26 June)

This stance, straight from the New Labour playbook, was, Lammy explained, “because we’re serious about the business of being in government, and the business of being in government is that you support negotiation”.

Even though he subsequently ‘apologised’ for ‘not understanding’ that the Heathrow dispute involved restoring a pay cut not achieving a pay rise, it revealed what the role of a Starmer Labour Party in government would be.

Not there to represent the working and middle classes, but instead to act as a shield for the capitalists and secure acquiescence to their demands, if not on every occasion certainly when the system’s vital interests are at stake.

This is being shown in microcosm in London, where the RMT is in a separate dispute over job losses and pension cuts with Transport for London (TfL) under the control of the Blairite Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, who is implementing, even if ‘reluctantly’, the Tories’ demands for cuts.

These are not arguments, of course, for ‘non-political’ trade unionism – the root of the rail workers’ battle is the £4 billion cuts being made from rail spending, £2 billion from Network Rail and the Train Operating Companies and another £2 billion from TfL, including the London underground.

Even The Guardian has presented the question as being whether rail travel should “be treated as essentially a business like any other, or as a public good to be run – and subsidised – according to different criteria”. (30 May)

In fact that question goes to the heart of the whole cost of living crisis.

Shouldn’t the provision of food, heating, childcare, housing, education, leisure opportunities, healthcare, environmental protection, pensions and so on, also all be treated as ‘a public good’ and produced by society ‘according to different criteria’ than whether or not the capitalist market can yield a profit from them?

A mass trade union struggle encompassing such demands, however, can only go so far, posing the need for a governmental alternative but not answering it.

Mick Lynch adroitly ridiculed Richard Madeley on ITV’s Good Morning Britain for “talking twaddle” when his opening question was, “aren’t you a Marxist into revolution and bringing down capitalism?” But it is also right that, as the RMT rule book says, the working class needs “the supersession of the capitalist system by a socialistic order of society” to fully and permanently secure its interests.

But, as the trade union movement concluded over 120 years ago when it moved to set up its own independent party, with the RMT’s predecessor union to the fore, to achieve that requires a political vehicle which will defend workers’ interests to the end.

Sir Keir Starmer’s so-called Labour Party is not it.

Now for workers’ politics

In his pre-strike challenge to Starmer, the Daily Telegraph reported, Mick Lynch “mentioned a dispute in Coventry as a key factor on his views on the Labour leader, where Unite members had been on strike for weeks over pay from the council”. (29 May)

The Labour-led city council has employed external drivers to collect waste during the strike, spending more than it would have cost to resolve the dispute.

In response Sharon Graham, elected as Unite general secretary last summer with a programme that included a call for a new ‘workers’ politics’ in opposition to uncritical financial support for the Labour Party, withdrew funding from Labour politicians in the Midlands, and stated that “until this strike is settled the remaining financial relationship with the Labour Party is now under review”. 

Describing David Lammy’s attack on the Unite members at Heathrow as “a new low for Labour”, she declared that “it is now down to the trade unions to defend working people. We are their only voice”. (Unite statement, 26 June)

That can only include challenging the likes of Lammy at the ballot box.

It is true that the recent conferences of both the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the ASLEF train drivers’ union voted to remain affiliated to the Labour Party, although this will not be the last word on this, in these unions or others.

The FBU general secretary Matt Wrack supported affiliation, telling PoliticsHome that “it makes sense for unions to be fighting for ideas that will make workers’ lives better inside a party rooted in worker representation”. (13 May)

At the ASLEF conference the argument made by general secretary Mick Whelan was that in Britain “what we have is a two-party system. The only game in town for working people and their families is if we stay with the party”. (Labour List, 16 May)

But look at the question of the London Labour mayor, for example, whose actions have certainly not ‘made workers’ lives better’ for both ASLEF and FBU members.

In 2020 the RMT London Transport regional council, noting that “Ken Livingstone won his first mayoral election standing against the official Labour candidate”, proposed “that Jeremy Corbyn be approached by the RMT and offered support should he be prepared to stand” against Sadiq Khan in the mayoral election scheduled for May 2021.

Mistakenly the London RMT’s proposal was not taken forward by the national union and campaigned for with other unions.

But are Mick and Matt really saying that a Corbyn mayoral candidacy, backed up with trade union anti-austerity candidates for the London assembly, had no chance of being successful?

Then, of course, the current battles of RMT, ALSEF and FBU members for pay, jobs and pensions could have been on a completely different terrain, with a supportive mayor (of one of the biggest cities in Europe) with the potential to mobilise public opposition against a weak Tory government haemorrhaging support.

The same mistake must not be repeated for the next general election, which must be held by December 2024.

Jeremy Corbyn will not be able to stand in his Islington North constituency as a Labour candidate.

Other Socialist Campaign Group MPs will also face removal by various means as Starmer’s cleansing out of the remnants of Corbynism continues, determined precisely to make Labour ‘fit for government’ in capitalism’s interests.

But, particularly in a hung parliament, even a small block of MPs representing militant trade unionism, which is something that could certainly be achieved if an independent trade union-based election coalition was prepared now, would have more impact in the struggle for workers’ interests than a phalanx of Blairite clones.

The shift in consciousness begun by the RMT must be seized on. The working class is back in action. Now is the time for a new workers’ politics.