Solidarity from Syria with striking RMT train guards.
Britain’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT) has been organising Britain’s rail workers to fight for their rights with a series of industrial actions. No strangers to international solidarity, the RMT also recently passed a motion supporting the 55 sacked Carlton & United Breweries workers in Melbourne.
Denis Rogatyuk recently spoke to Steve Hedley, the RMT’s assistant general secretary, to talk about its campaigns, the political situation in Britain and the need for trade unionists to defend Labour’s socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn, under attack from Labour’s right wing as well as the corporate media.
Can you tell us about some of the RMT’s recent industrial struggles?
We are an organisation of about 84,000 workers, 79,000 of which work on the trains, metro, buses, taxis, as well as about 5000 seafarers on British ships.
The struggles we’ve been involved in recently have been about the de-staffing of stations. Companies are increasingly trying to privatise the railway system here and increasing profits through cutting staff numbers.
People feel vulnerable when there are no staff on stations. The public has been fully onboard with our campaign to stop that. Unfortunately in the London Underground, the company and the government have succeeded in closing all the ticket offices. What we did manage to do was make sure there were no compulsory redundancies and we got a lot of concessions from them. But we were unable to stop them.
More recently, we’ve had the guards’ dispute. We have a guard on every train, as a safety and in case of emergency, who evacuates the train if there are any incidents. In order to increase their profits, the companies are now also trying to get rid of the guards.
We have had two days of industrial action, September 7 and 8, against Southern Rail, a company run by Govia Thameslink. They've just been given £20 million by the government, basically as a result for failure. The parent company has made £100 million profit, and the taxpayer has handed them another £20 million.
At the moment, it is cancelling 341 trains per day and we are not even on strike. It has the most shocking service and privatisation has led to the situation in Britain where people are paying highest fares anywhere in the world for the worst service.
We are also involved in an offshore oil workers’ strike. Shell has used the recession and falling oil prices to decimate its workforce. The rigs are not maintained properly from a health and safety perspective. The guys there have had a couple of days’ of industrial action and that has brought the company to the negotiating table.
We have also been supporting the living wage campaign by the cleaners in London, as well as pushing for a higher national minimum wage.
Your union strongly advocates for nationalising the railways?
We want the whole transport industry nationalised. Our policies are now being adopted by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. He pushes the full renationalisation of the railways.
Our union believes we should nationalise transport with no compensation to anyone, although Corbyn’s policies involve compensation, as well as taking over the railways franchise by franchise. It’s not ideal, but it is better than anything anyone else has come up with so far.
The RMT also spearheaded the “Left Leave” campaign that backed “Brexit” from a left perspective. What opportunities and challenges do you think exist for the workers in the post-Brexit Britain?
You really need to look at the nature of the European Union. The EU was set up as en economic bulwark against the Soviet Union, running parallel with NATO. They explicit goal is free-market, free movement of labour, free movement of capital. How can you have a socialist system under those conditions? It is impossible.
Saying that you want to reform the European Union is a bit like saying you want to join the Conservative Party to fight for socialism. It is simply not in line with the aims and constitutions of that party. Joining the EU provides the opposite of socialism — free-market capitalism is not socialism.
We think Brexit opens up a number of avenues for workers. For example, the European Union policy of rail privatisation is going to effectively be institutionalised. The Fourth Rail Bill passed in April this year — it basically says that all the rail franchises within Europe, all the national railways will need to be opened up it competition.
That means that Govia would be able to bid for franchises in Berlin or Frankfurt and exporting the absolute chaos we have here, over to mainland Europe.
We are not for a minute saying that privatisation is a European phenomena. It was brought here by Margaret Thatcher and neoliberal conservatism. But that Fourth Rail package will institutionalise it. So even if we had our government here under Corbyn that said they want to renationalise the railways, they couldn't be done within the structures of the European Union, so it has opened up that space.
The RMT has been a very strong advocate of the various internationalist causes for years. Could tell us of some of the more prominent ones?
We are a socialist trade union and we’ve campaigned internationally on many issues. We are supportive of Cuba, of the World Federation of Trade Unions. We understand that workers are not limited to struggling within the national borders, they need to link up internationally.
Bob Crow was a popular RMT leader who sadly died prematurely in 2014 aged just 52 while still serving as general secretary. We’ve heard that a “Bob Crow Brigade” has been formed in Rojava to fight against the Islamic State as part of the Rojava Revolution.
I can only tell you about the Bob Crow brigade in a personal capacity. I visited the Syrian border, on the Turkish side, as part of an RMT delegation. It was just a mile away from Kobanê, and we spoke with the Yezidi and Kurdish people who had to flee the devastation caused by ISIS.
We’ve talked with women who were raped, people who had relatives killed or were tortured. Some simply wanted to come to Europe because of the trauma they experienced.
The Bob Crow Brigade is a group of people from Britain and Ireland who went to fight alongside the YPG/YPJ revolutionary forces in Rojava and they have my full personal support.
Bob Crow was a big fan of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, many of whom came from the National Union of Railwaymen. We commemorate their sacrifice every year.
I’m sure that Bob would have drawn the parallels with today’s struggle. ISIS and their allies are fascists — they are not trying to spread Islam, but a very primitive form of religion. Their appalling treatment of women and minority groups cannot be negotiated. That’s why people from Britain and Ireland have gone to fight them.
In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as leader of the Labour Party after years of neoliberal leadership. Do you think it was the result of the past several years of anti-austerity struggle since the 2008 economic crisis?
Even without looking at the hundreds of thousands of people who joined Labour since Corbyn was elected, the already existing Labour membership elected him with 60% of the vote.
Obviously, there are many reasons for that. The anti-austerity fight was a part of that, but I think as well that people saw what happened with the Iraq War backed by Tony Blair and they saw the financial crisis under Gordon Brown. With the spread of social media, people were finally getting different views, and not just being spoon-fed by the BBC or the Murdoch media.
Corbyn came up and no one predicted it. He obviously tapped into the mood of disgruntlement among people who don't want to vote for a Labour Party that constantly adopts neoliberal policies. They wanted something different, they wanted a change.
And when you look at Corbyn, you see that his policies are not revolutionary socialist. They are essentially what you would call Old Labour policies, similar to those of Michael Foot [former Labour leader in the early 1980s]. So Corbyn is not a departure from traditional Labour values, in fact he is an embodiment of them.
Blairites, the right-wing people who came and occupied the party, are the ones at odds with Labour’s tradition. It is odd that they’ve remained unchallenged for such a long time at the top of the party.
And Corbyn’s rise is the expression of all the discontent that’s been building up within the party and society for years.
The RMT and other militant and left-wing unions have played a big role in defending Corbyn, both before and during the current leadership challenge. What can you tell us about the specific actions that you’ve done?
We decided that the union will support Corbyn and [shadow chancellor and close Corbyn ally] John McDonnell. They’ve always stood with us on picket lines, supported our fight in parliament, raising questions for us there. So we found it natural that we should support them and their policies.
We’ve raised funds for them, we’ve campaigned in our publications and contacted our members, urging those who are Labour members to vote for them. We are not affiliated as a union to Labour, but we have taken a decision now that we won’t support any Labour candidate who doesn’t support Corbyn.
Corbyn seems certain to win the current Labour leadership contest. Do you think that the RMT can act as a major left-wing political and industrial force to push and keep the Labour Party to the left?
Absolutely. I think that if all the unions used the tactics that we’ve adopted and only funded supporters of Corbyn and not just gave Labour money willy-nilly, that would be a tremendous advance.
Why should we give a blank cheque to the Labour Party, where they can go and spend it on people who are actively working against people who support our members. It just doesn't make sense.