Marcus Greville, London
On February 7, British PM Tony Blair's New Labour expelled the Railway and Maritime and Transport Union from its ranks. The RMT, involved in the British Labour Party's 1900 founding, is the first union ever to be booted from the party. The expulsion was triggered by the union's attempts to democratically control its political funds.
The annual RMT conference in June voted to give more control to union members over their political funds. RMT member branches gained the right to support, including affiliate to, political organisations other than Labour. The union decided to maintain its affiliation to Labour, and pay it £12,500 a year.
Late last year, five of the seven Scottish RMT branches successfully applied to the union's national executive for approval to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party. In January, the Labour Party issued an ultimatum to the union, demanding the national executive reverse the decision by noon on February 7, and threatening to expel the union.
This ultimatum prompted an RMT special general meeting in Glasgow, held on February 6. Delegates to it voted overwhelmingly — 42-8 — to uphold the union's decision, and continue to allow branches to support political parties that supported the union's key demands. Subsequently, all seven Scottish branches have sought affiliation to the SSP, as has the Scottish executive.
The key demands of the RMT include: the re-nationalisation of the railways; the repeal of anti-trade union laws brought in by the Tories; and a halt to further privatisation. The RMT rule book also calls for the "supercession of the capitalist system by a socialistic order of society". As the Labour Party has no intention of instituting any of these principles, many RMT members have been asking why their money is going to a government actively undermining RMT policies.
Labour's ultimatum expired as Bob Crow, the RMT general secretary was addressing the Trade Union Convention, attended by more than 700 left-wing trade unionists. He told the delegates that he "felt free", quipping pointedly, "perhaps some of you might try it as well".
After making it clear that "no political party should tell us what to do with our money", Crow explained that the RMT had not jumped ship, but had been pushed, without the right to a hearing or an appeal in the party. Crow does not believe that the decision to allow branches to give funds to other parties breaches Labour Party rules.
The lead-up to the trade union convention and the RMT's expulsion was marked by growing debate around two linked issues: the democratisation of union political funding; and whether to break with Labour or struggle within it.
The Labour Party's embrace of privatisation and pursuit of the war against Iraq has provoked a crisis of legitimacy for the party among many trade unionists, angry that their political funds are going to a government opposed to the interests of working people.
A debate had been planned for the convention between Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and an advocate of breaking with the Labour Party, and Billy Hayes, the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and a supporter of staying in Labour to reclaim it. Although the speakers had to cancel at the last minute, the session was among the most lively.
To Labour or not Labour?
With the debate framed by the expulsion of the RMT, many speakers favoured democratising union funds to allow members to support progressive parties while refusing to disaffiliate from Blair's Labour.
Those arguing in favour of remaining in the Labour Party emphasised that it was a site of struggle. One speaker argued that, therefore, leftists shouldn't "set up a party outside Labour".
Other speakers, however, compared the Labour Party to an abusive partner, concluding that the left should see that the Labour Party cannot be changed.
The expulsion of the RMT has thrown the Labour Party into further crisis and fuelled a growing anti-Labour backlash. Already, branches of various unions have tabled motions of support for the RMT to their national bodies. Several contain proposals to disaffiliate from the Labour Party unless it readmits the RMT.
Firefighters and communication workers
The CWU has rallied behind the RMT. Prior to the expulsion, the Scottish No 2 branch of the CWU voted overwhelmingly to make "immediate moves to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party as a first step to democratising the political fund of the CWU". The union's general secretary, Billy Hayes, a member of the reclaim-Labour camp, is holding talks to attempt to prevent this.
Members of the Fire Brigades Union have also come out in support of the RMT. Some FBU branches have tabled disaffiliation motions for the union's conference in May. Many in the FBU are angry about Labour's treatment of a bitter nine-month pay dispute last year, and about the way their general secretary Andy Gilchrist, a supporter of staying in the Labour Party, rolled over at a critical point.
As the pro-capitalist Labour Party further alienates itself from the British working class and the trade union movement, unionists need to think not only about disaffiliation, but of what political alternative to Labour is needed.
George Galloway, the expelled anti-war Labour MP now fronting the Respect Unity Coalition addressed the convention. He encouraged the RMT to support Respect in the June British election this year. Should the union decide to do this — an unconfirmed February 8 Observer report argues it's London region is poised to do so — then New Labour's remaining working class threads will keep unravelling.
From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.