Report: RMT AGM 2009

This is my personal report on the RMT AGM, which was also published in ‘Solidarity’ newspaper, and on Stroppyblog.

Rail and transport union RMT held its annual general meeting from 28 June to 2 July, against a backdrop of employers attacking jobs and conditions across the industry. The AGM was unanimously determined to resist these attacks. However, thousands of job cuts are going ahead, several strike ballots have been voted down, and it was not entirely clear how the union plans to turn this situation around.

Six years on from its foundation, Network Rail has still failed to harmonise the terms and conditions of workers who came to it from various contractor companies, and RMT members overwhelmingly defeated its latest harmonisation proposals in a recent referendum. Rank-and-file members are critical of union’s campaign on this issue to date, and a resolution from the North East Region sought a guarantee that RMT would not agree harmonisation or restructuring proposals, in any company, that left any members worse off. This seemed to me a basic principle — workers do not join a union for it to negotiate a worsening of their working conditions, nor to allow employers to play off one group of workers against another. However, the majority of delegates were persuaded that the resolution would “tie the hands” of the Executive, and voted it down.

Delegates gave a retrospective endorsement to the “No2EU — Yes to Democracy” election campaign, passing a resolution from the Executive approving “No2EU” and resolving to organise a conference later this year to plan future electoral challenges. As I disagreed with the first of these but agreed with the second, I abstained, as did two other delegates, the rest voting in favour. However, several supporters of the resolution criticised the name “No2EU” and the lack of consultation with branches and members, largely supporting “No2EU” because they thought it better than doing nothing and gave them something to vote for. Not a single delegate defended the Labour Party.

Later in the week the AGM enthusiastically welcomed John McDonnell’s parliamentary report.

The AGM passed a resolution on Venezuela, with the standard left line of support for president Hugo Chavez — but delegates made some critical comments during the debate. Disappointingly, the AGM voted for a boycott of Israeli goods, overturning RMT’s “solidarity not boycott” policy. In this debate, Bob Crow broke the union’s rule that the General Secretary should defend existing RMT policy, instead giving a tubthumping speech for the boycott — earning himself a reprimand from the President, but only after it was too late to affect the outcome.

RMT’s AGM is different from many other unions’ conferences, as it has fewer than seventy delegates. The advantage of this is that everyone gets to speak on whatever issue they want to. But the disadvantage is that big sections of the membership are not represented. While the structures do not prevent delegates criticising the leadership, I feel that aspects of the AGM’s culture suppressed criticism. We have a dominant General Secretary with a big personality, impressive speaking style and a decent (though flawed) record of standing up for members. This — together with a powerful desire for unity, for huddling together against the storm of the employers’ attacks — can quieten dissent even if the structures do not. The “top table” got their way on everything, all week. That alone should set alarm bells ringing.

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