Leadership and union militancy: the case of the RMT.

Author:Darlington, Ralph


Kelly's (1998) seminal exposition and refinement of mobilisation theory has been well received, in general, the field of British industrial relations since it appeared more than a decade ago. Yet there remains a paucity of empirical studies that attempt to relate the role of activists to specific workers' struggles (for some exceptions, see Taylor &Bain, 2003; Heery & Conley, 2006; Simms, 2007). Moreover, Fairbrother (2005) has recently mounted a fierce, although brief and undeveloped, critique of Kelly's alleged 'theoretically blinkered', 'one-dimensional' and 'vanguardist' conception of trade union leadership. Fairbrother complains that the starting point for a Kelly-type analysis is a leader-led dichotomy, rather than the nature of work and employment relations. He insists that it is necessary to throw off the shackles of this 'poverty of leadership thesis' and return to more comprehensive forms of analysis, such as the sociologically-inspired workplace case studies of Beynon (1973) and Batstone et al. (1977, 1978), which attempt to explore the conditions for various forms of workplace collective organisation, struggle, activism and 'leadership' in terms of period, situation, sector and circumstance.

On one level, Fairbrother's argument that questions of trade union leadership cannot be abstracted from the dynamics of social relations at work and its collective forms of union organisation is undoubtedly well founded. However, arguably, a crucial feature of mobilisation theory is the way it favours complex multi-factor explanations that seek to marry structural determination with deliberate agency. Thus while the centrality of agency in collective workplace mobilisation, and in particular the role of union leadership, is reasserted, so is the question of the context and opportunity for collective mobilisation. The latter includes the structural conditions of labour and product markets, the legal context, the extent of management provocation, the nature of workers' grievances, their level of organisation and consciousness, the balance of power favourable to action, and the strength and traditions of solidarity.

However, Fairbrother's explicit attempt to denigrate Kelly's emphasis on the role of union activist leadership effectively blurs the distinction between activists and members and, by focusing on what it implies is a more spontaneist dynamic, ignores the way in which even though union activists do not, and cannot, create the underlying material conditions that can lead to conflict and mobilisation, they can stimulate awareness of grievances and of the potential for collective action for redress; they can take the lead in proposing and initiating such action; and they can provide cohesion to discontent by generalising from workers' immediate economic grievances to broader, even political, concerns. In this sense, union leadership can be seen to be as important as any structural or institutional complexity in shaping the nature of collective action.

The attempt to counterpose Batstone et al.'s highly insightful accounts of social processes at the workplace (1977, 1978) to 'vanguardist' mobilisation theory is also completely misplaced. In fact, Batstone provided one of the most detailed examinations of the processes through which shop steward 'leaders' seeking to shape a strategic workplace-wide perspective could foster collective organisation and action. Efforts to prepare the members to act collectively, Batstone made clear, depended in large part on the continued educational role of the stewards' leadership in channelling and controlling rank-and-file discontent. This often involved the stewards in a protracted process of communication, 'vocabularies of motive', 'mobilisation of bias' and 'systems of argument' to reinforce the collective interests of the group. Thanks to their influence, stewards could, within limits, determine whether a stoppage occurred or which workers and what issues would be involved, and along what lines a settlement would be reached. Previous studies such as those by Batstone et al. underline the fact that mobilisation theory, however insightful it might be, has not completely reinvented the wheel as regards the analysis of collective mobilisation, even though mobilisation theory provides a much more comprehensive analytical framework. But crucially, mobilisation theory, like Batstone's studies, directs our attention towards the key role of activist leadership in highlighting grievances, 'framing' issues that identify a collective interest among workers, attributing blame to management, legitimising and encouraging mobilisation, and responding to counter-mobilisation by employers.

One significant limitation in Kelly's approach that Fairbrother does not mention, but which also characterises his own work and is a common feature of much industrial relations literature generally, is the relative neglect of the whole topic of left-wing union leadership and its significance for collective mobilisation. Yet there are some potentially interesting questions that could be posed here, for example in unions like the RMT, PCS and FBU. How does a leftwing perspective influence union mobilisation strategies? What evidence is there of the effectiveness of left-wing union leadership in terms of success/failure in gaining members' support, the extent and nature of collective action undertaken, the modifying of managerial behaviour, and the effect on union growth and strength? What are the conditions and contextual factors that enable left-wing activist leadership to be effective, and the compliance or consent of followers to be granted?

With such considerations in mind, we can now turn to some case-study research into the dynamics of union mobilisation as displayed by the RMT in recent years, with the aim of examining both conditioning and influencing processes (structure and agency) on mobilisation, and with specific reference to the relationship between workers' combativity, collective organisation, union leadership and left-wing activism.

Case study: The RMT

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) (1) is one of the most militant and left-wing trade unions in Britain. One expression of this has been the way in which on London Underground and in different sections of the national railway network, the union has explicitly rejected social partnership in favour of the repeated threat and use of strikes on issues such as pay, working conditions, pensions and the effects of privatisation. Thus on London Underground in the period 2000-2008, the RMT balloted for industrial action on no less than 50 different occasions, engaging in strikes on 18 different occasions, some of which involved two or even three days of action. On the railway network in the same period, the RMT balloted for industrial action on 68 occasions, engaging in strike action on no less than 33 different occasions (again, some of which have involved a number of days of action). (2) Per thousand members, the RMT has probably organised more ballots for industrial action and more strike action than any other union over the last ten years, including both ASLEF and TSSA, the other main railway and Tube workers' unions. (3)

Strike ballots have frequently been used as a form of sabre-rattling designed to bolster the union's bargaining leverage, with no action resulting, although sometimes with significant concessions being obtained. But on occasion, RMT strike threats have led to full-blown strike action, sometimes with devastatingly high-profile public effect. For example, a 48-hour strike by 2,300 Metronet infrastructure workers on London Underground in September 2007, to secure guarantees over jobs, conditions and pensions, shut down the vast majority of the Tube network, inconvenienced 3 million people and caused an estimated 100 million [pounds sterling] damage to London's economy. A 48-hour strike by all 9,000 RMT members across the entire Tube network in 2009, on the subject of pay, job cuts and 'bullying' management, had a similar impact.

Such industrial militancy has been more than matched by political opposition to many contentious New Labour government policies, notably the government's refusal to countenance the re-nationalisation of the railways and undo the subsequent part-privatisation of London Underground, but also on many other issues. Having reduced its affiliation fees to the Labour Party for allegedly 'deserting its working class roots' and for 'jumping into bed with its big business friends' (RMT News, July-August 2001), the RMT's decision to allow local union branches to affiliate to, and campaign for, non-Labour Party political organisations and candidates at local and parliamentary elections resulted in its expulsion in 2004 from the party it had helped to set up a hundred years earlier. The historic break with the Labour Party has been emblematic of the militant trade unionism and left-wing radicalism embodied in the RMT.

Not surprisingly, such a combative and left-wing union approach has been subject to vigorous critique. The London Evening Standard has argued (2004) that it is the union's 'hard-left' militant leaders who should be held entirely responsible for the persistence of strikes on the Tube and on the railways: 'In an age when Scargillism is almost extinct, when most trade unions have become moderate bodies which recognise that they exist to serve their members, the RMT and its leaders represent a very sorry replay of Jurassic Park' (Evening Standard, 2001).

Yet despite, or perhaps more accurately because of, such a militant approach, the RMT can legitimately claim several high-profile bargaining victories and advances on behalf of its members in recent years. For example, the threat and/or use of strike action have resulted in numerous above-inflation pay rises, as well as the 35-hour working week on many sectors of the railway network and on London...

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