Leadership and union militancy: The case of the RMT: 533647

Kelly’s (1998) seminal exposition and refinement of mobilisation theory has been well received, in general, within 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’, ‘onedimensional’ and ‘vanguardist’ conception of trade union leadership. Fairbrother complains that the starting point for a Kelly-type Leadership and union militancy: The case of the RMT Ralph Darlington
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
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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.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers
(RMT)1 is one of the most militant and left-wing trade unions in
Leadership and union militancy
Case study: The RMT
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 sabrerattling
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 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 renationalisation
of the railways and undo the subsequent partprivatisation
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.
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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 highprofile
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 Underground (plus an annual 52-
days’ leave entitlement on the latter). It has also achieved the
reversal of attempts by Network Rail and other rail companies to
end their final-salary pension schemes for new starters, and
contributed to bringing the private Metronet consortium contract
back ‘in-house’, to be overseen by the publicly-run Transport for
London. Such an adversarial approach and the material benefits it
has accrued has, in turn, contributed to a growth in RMT
membership during the period 1999–2007, rising from 56,037 to
75,939 in 2007, representing a 37.3 per cent increase.4 Even though
the absolute numbers are not large, they nevertheless make the
RMT one of the fastest-growing unions in Britain, which is no
mean achievement in the context of merely stable or even
declining membership for many other unions (Berlin, 2006; Gall,
2005a, 2006a).
Whilst industrial relations and trade unionism on the national
railway network have been the subject of attention by some
researchers in the past, (Ferner, 1985; Edwards, 1987; Hyman, Price
& Terry, 1988; Pendleton, 1991a, 1991b, 1993, 1994, 1997; Freeman &
Shaw, 2000; Murray, 2001), they have been largely ignored since
privatisation. The London Underground, meanwhile, has
consistently remained almost completely unexplored territory
(Darlington, 2001, 2009b). This is remarkable considering the
centrality of both industries to the day-to-day functioning of the
British economy and society, the evident importance of
railway/Tube stations and depots as major workplaces in their own
right, the fact that both industries have experienced a relatively
high level of strike action in recent years, and the combative and
political form of trade unionism that the RMT has developed.
Leadership and union militancy
In attempting to fill the gap, this article builds on some
preliminary studies (Darlington, 2001, 2002, 2007, 2008, 2009a,
2009b) in order to re-evaluate the relationship between union
militancy and leadership, with a specific focus on the role of leftwing
RMT activists within both the national railway and London
Underground networks. ‘Left-wing’ is defined not only in terms of
fixed affiliation to a political party, but also in the syndicalist-type
sense of a consistently adversarial attitude towards management
and a commitment to the wholesale redistribution of wealth and
power in society. Drawing on the study of leadership provided by
mobilisation theory, the article explores the extent to which union
leadership, notably by left-wing activists at every level of the
union, has been an important contributory catalyst, symptom and
beneficiary of workplace union militancy relative to other variables
(such as the impact of privatisation, managerial belligerence, and
immediate grievances over pay and conditions, etc.). The methods
of data collection included extensive tape-recorded semistructured
interviews with 36 RMT members at every level of the
union (including shop-floor activists, workplace reps, branch
officers, full-time national organisers and members of the Council
of Executives), as well as with five senior HR managers from
different companies; the analysis of documentary industrial
relations and trade union material, and personal fieldwork
observation at union meetings.
The article proceeds to provide a multi-dimensional set of
explanations for the RMT’s industrial and political militancy,
examining four interrelated factors in turn: political economy,
industrial relations, trade unionism and left-wing activism. Finally,
some conclusions are made and a wider assessment is drawn with
reference to current debates around union revitalisation.
The political economy context has been of importance not only in
contributing to the broad underlying industrial discontent, but also
in terms of the politicisation of industrial relations and trade
unionism on both the national railway network and London
Underground. Privatisation of the railways by the Conservatives
took place in May 1996, despite network-wide strikes over the
threat of job cuts and in defence of industry-wide agreements. It
involved the separation of the running of trains from ownership of
the track, and transformed a relatively well-functioning integrated
service into a highly fragmented business. Apart from Railtrack (the
privatised company that now owned the infrastructure of the
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Political economy
railways and was responsible for operating the track, signalling and
stations), there were now twenty-five train operating companies,
three rolling stock companies, three freight companies, seven main
infrastructure companies, and literally hundreds of subcontractors.
Significantly, from an RMT perspective there was an acute sense
of ‘betrayal’ by New Labour on the issue. In 1995, in the run-up to
the special conference that scrapped the Labour Party’s historic
Clause Four commitment to public ownership, Tony Blair and John
Prescott had both nevertheless been keen to emphasise that a
Labour government would see the restoration of a ‘publicly owned
and publicly accountable railway system’ (Murray, 2001: 16). But
prior to the 1997 general election, the party leadership abandoned
its commitment to re-nationalisation and subsequently became
even more wedded to the idea of private finance initiatives (PFIs)
than were its predecessors. Increasing disillusionment with New
Labour inside the RMT has become manifest in a number of ways.
The biggest irony and indeed, failure of privatisation, it has
been pointed out, is that far from reducing the cost of the railways
to taxpayers, it has soared to unprecedented heights, with train
operating companies simultaneously siphoning off billions of
pounds in profits (Catalyst, 2004, 2005a, 2005b). The RMT’s sense
of outrage at the scale of this public subsidy of private finance has
been reflected in its continued reference to ‘rail profiteers’ and ‘fat
cats’ who have ‘plundered the public purse’, and the union has
vigorously campaigned for re-nationalisation of the railways. The
union has also been aggrieved at the perceived inherent tendency
to undermine the safety culture of the national railway network
brought about by privatisation, with rail accidents at Southall (1997),
Ladbroke Grove (1999), Hatfield (2000), Potters Bar (2002) and
Lambrigg (2007). With the widely acknowledged failure of
privatisation to ensure adequate investment in infrastructure
maintenance, Railtrack was taken into administration and replaced
by Network Rail Plc., a government-backed ‘not-for-profit’
company which in 2003 took back direct control of network
maintenance from the private contractors (albeit still leaving
renewal work in the hands of private companies). But the political
dimension of health and safety has been underlined by the way in
which corporate manslaughter charges were dropped over both the
Hatfield and Potters Bar rail crashes, despite independent evidence
that Balfour Beatty, Jarvis and Network Rail had failed to manage
the inspection and maintenance of the track effectively. As a result,
the RMT has argued than that on a privatised rail network, ‘profit
comes before safety’.
Leadership and union militancy
In addition, the union has protested at the way New Labour has
intervened directly in industrial relations within the rail industry
by providing over £23 million of special compensation payments
to train operating companies as indemnity for revenue lost as a
result of strike action. This has included strikes at Arriva Trains
Northern (2002), South West Trains (2002) and Scotrail (2003)
(Hansard 2006; Transport Select Committee, 2006). In the RMT’s
view, this is ‘an astonishing abuse of public funds’. On top of the
billions of pounds of subsidy already paid to the train operators,
they have protested, it has effectively been government policy to
subsidise industrial relations failure on behalf of employers by
encouraging them provoke and prolong industrial disputes,
thereby undermining good industrial relations (RMT News,
July–August 2006).
The union’s disenchantment with New Labour was considerably
deepened by the part-privatisation of the London Underground
via a so-called public–private partnership (PPP). The government
had intended the Tube PPP, the largest in the world and costing
£455 million in legal and consulting fees to set up, to be in
operation by 2000. But widespread public opposition, legal
challenges and strike action by the RMT in 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2002
delayed the process until 2003. In order to circumvent the Tories’
employment laws, the RMT’s strike action was framed around the
industrial relations ‘effects’ of privatisation, with demands for
guarantees regarding the terms and conditions of workers to be
transferred to the private sector; but the stoppages were widely
understood to be political action explicitly focused on a central
plank of New Labour policy.
As with the national railway network, PPP resulted in London
Underground’s infrastructure being separated from the operation
of train services. But in the case of the Tube, the infrastructure was
taken over by two private-sector consortia (Metronet and Tube
Lines), while train operations remained in the hands of the
publicly-run London Underground Limited (LUL) under the
political control of the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, and
Transport for London (TfL). For the RMT, as for many
independent observers (Wolmar, 2002; Sachdev, 2004), the result
was a financial fiasco, with central-government expenditure
increasing more than twenty-fold in the period 1997–2005 (RMT,
2007a). The financial disaster of PPP was highlighted in July 2007
when Metronet, responsible for maintaining and upgrading twothirds
of the Tube’s infrastructure, was taken into administration
after running up an estimated overspend of £1.9 billion. RMT
strike action to secure guarantees over jobs, conditions and
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pensions from the bankrupt company’s administrator was
accompanied by demands for the contract to be taken back under
public control by TfL.
Disaffection with New Labour was compounded by the political
about-turn of Ken Livingstone, who went from being an opponent
of PPP to one of its supporters, and in turn became a harsh critic
of the RMT. The union had provided fulsome support to
Livingstone’s 2000 independent Greater London Assembly
campaign for election to the newly created office of London’s
mayor, with Livingstone having been excluded as the Labour
Party’s official candidate on the basis that he explicitly rejected
part-privatisation of the Tube. But following his spectacular
election victory, Livingstone lost his legal fight to prevent PPP, and
promptly accepted that he would now work with the private firms
involved. Shortly afterwards he was readmitted to the Labour Party,
and proceeded to distance himself from his erstwhile union
supporters. In June 2004, just two weeks after winning re-election
as mayor, Livingstone publicly denounced a strike over pay by LUL
workers in dramatic fashion: ‘Were I a member of the RMT, for the
first time in my life I would cross a picket line’ (Lydall, 2004;
Maguire, 2004). One RMT rep commented: ‘It’s difficult to
describe the anger within the RMT at Livingstone’s call for scabs’
(Socialist Worker, 2004). Moreover, despite TfL’s successful 2007 bid
for the failed Metronet work to be brought in-house, albeit
probably with some private-sector involvement, Livingstone
proceeded with the unprecedented privatisation of the Tube’s East
London line, in the first stage of what the union fears could be the
privatisation of the whole operational side of the Underground.
Meanwhile, as on the railways, the issue of safety on the London
Underground has also been a fundamentally important
undercurrent to the RMT’s militant industrial and political stance,
with a number of Tube derailments (including those at Chancery
Lane, Hammersmith and Camden Town in 2003; White City in
2004; and Mile End/Bethnal Green in 2007) being attributed to the
perceived inherently unsafe nature of PPP. In addition, under the
political inspiration of New Labour, LUL imposed new safety rule
books in July 2007, effectively replacing regulations introduced
after the King’s Cross fire in 1987, which laid down minimum fire
standards and staffing levels. With the introduction of PPP
contracts, it was claimed that such regulations were too prescriptive
and placed a far too costly ‘burden’ on the employer. By contrast,
the new safety rules, estimated by the government to save business
around £36 million over 10 years, have threatened a shift in
emphasis from a regime of inspections and fire certification to one
Leadership and union militancy
of risk assessments and ‘self compliance’. Under the campaign
slogan of ‘London Underground: I Do Mind Dying’, the RMT has
bitterly protested that the government’s ‘neo-conservative’ faith
that unregulated business will act responsibly is ill-founded: as a
high-risk industry, the railways would only be safe if the risks were
controlled and tightly regulated (RMT, 2007b).
New Labour’s refusal to amend the Conservative governments’
employment laws has been another bone of contention, with
threatened strikes on both the railways and London Underground
having being repeatedly subject to court injunctions by employers
attempting to get the actions called off. Gall (2006b) has estimated
that these sectors and the RMT have accounted for the largest
overall number and percentage of court injunctions in industrial
disputes during the period 1995–2005. In response, the union has
been at the forefront of the campaign for a Trade Union Freedom
Bill. More broadly, the politicisation of industrial relations has
been reflected in the RMT’s antipathy to a whole raft of New
Labour’s economic, political and social policies, including the
‘marketisation’ of public services, the embrace of globalisation and
big business, and military intervention in Iraq.
The second contributory factor to the RMT’s industrial and political
militancy has been the industrial relations context, namely the
nature of managerial action, workers’ immediate grievances, and the
strategic industrial opportunities for union redress through collective
forms of action. The transformation of the railway network from a
single public entity into a myriad of private companies resulted in a
fierce competitive battle, with antagonistic contractual relationships
undermining cooperative working practices (Bagwell, 1996; Murray,
2001; Strangleman, 2004; Wolmar, 2005), and with the drive to reduce
costs (for example, on the infrastructure side, by slashing the
workforce substantially and sub-contracting labour) creating a high
degree of job insecurity throughout the industry. Such insecurity
within train operating companies (TOCs) has been further
compounded by the short-term nature of franchises, at an average of
only six-to-seven years, which has hindered long-term planning.
Ironically, given that at the end of the period a new company could
win the franchise (for example, in July 2007, Arriva took over the
Virgin Cross Country franchise and decided to restructure), such
arrangements have inevitably sapped workers’ sense of allegiance
and loyalty towards individual companies, with negative
ramifications for the conduct of industrial relations.
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Industrial relations
Following privatisation, there was an accompanying break-up of
the previously highly integrated national framework for collective
bargaining, with each separate company now becoming responsible
for its own bargaining arrangements. There are currently over a
hundred different bargaining groups. Despite Network Rail having
taken maintenance work back in-house, there has remained a
patchwork quilt of different pay rates and conditions introduced
since privatisation for many engineering grades. At the same time,
in many TOCs the sometimes very acrimonious relationship
between the RMT and ASLEF (the latter exclusively representing
train drivers) has been exacerbated by apparent classic ‘divide-andrule’
management strategies aimed at stymieing the potential for
united action by playing on the differences in bargaining
representation and approach between the unions.
In some respects, train drivers (mainly ASLEF, but also RMT)
initially adapted fairly well to the arrival of company-level
bargaining among TOCs, successfully exploiting advantageous
tighter labour markets. In the late-1990s and early 2000s, there was
a shortage of drivers arising from the immediate post-privatisation
restructuring, which cut back many so-called ‘non-essential staff ’.
When demand for rail travel actually increased, individual TOCs,
faced with the prospect of future franchise reorganisation, felt
little incentive to recruit and train new drivers only to see them
poached by another company. Instead, they viewed bigger pay rises
for their existing scarce drivers as a short-term solution, albeit
accompanied by much more flexible working practices. But this
sparked off a poaching war as other TOCs offered terms as good as
their rivals, and in turn this encouraged a much broader layer of
the companies’ guards and station staff to attempt to maintain their
relative pay levels rather than fall behind the drivers. As a result,
thousands of RMT guards and station staff have been involved
over recent years in a series of discontinuous strikes, with separate
disputes on, for example, Virgin, South West Trains, Southern
Trains, First North Western, Arriva Trains Northern, London
Docklands Light Railway and Scotrail, which in many cases have
been successful. In this fashion, the break-up of national bargaining
in the rail industry has to some extent been matched, with the
RMT mobilising its members in different individual companies
behind a model minimum pay and conditions agreement (with a 35-
hour basic working week emerging as the industry standard).
Nonetheless, there remain widespread differences in pay and
conditions among RMT members within the same grade from one
TOC to another, as well as often between existing staff and new
starters within individual companies. Employers have often
Leadership and union militancy
successfully pushed through, against union resistance, longer-term
(often two-to-three year) pay settlements, with the consolidation of
various shift and rest-day allowances into basic salaries; reductions
in the level of overtime; more flexible rostering arrangements; and
more intensive working patterns. In response, the RMT has
campaigned for an end to the fragmented industrial relations
system with a return to national-level bargaining arrangements
(Ewing, 2003).
On the London Underground, PPP has also led to differential
collective bargaining arrangements, and the erosion of the terms
and conditions of employment, pensions and travel benefits of
those transferred over to the private sector, which has contributed
to industrial relations tensions. Moreover, even on the LUL,
publicly-owned operational side of the Underground network, the
fragmentation of management organisation, with line-based
management structures, has had the effect of encouraging
industrial relations disputes at local level (London Assembly, 2006;
Darlington, 2009b).
Managerial belligerence in both transport sectors in the wake of
privatisation and PPP has also helped to encourage the RMT’s
militant stance, and undermined the possibilities for any alternative
form of ‘social partnership’ arrangement as a means of protecting
workers’ interests. As the Financial Times acknowledged, on the
railways the RMT could ‘argue with some legitimacy that the
rising tide of militancy is a direct response to a more aggressive
employer agenda to boost productivity by tying pay deals to the
reform of working practices in a bid to achieve efficiency savings’
(Turner, 2003). Likewise on the Tube, the commercial imperatives
at the heart of PPP have affected not only the infrastructure
workers in the private sector, but also the operational staff within
the public sector. In February 2006, the RMT called on the LUL
managing director to help break the cycle of disputes. In a letter
from RMT general secretary Bob Crow to Tim O’Toole, LUL
managing director, dated 14 February 2006, Crow pointed out:
‘There is an overwhelming feeling among our Tube members that
there is an urgent need to rein in managers who seem intent on
continued confrontation’. The letter continued, ‘it is the frustration
of having to deal with daily attacks by managers who seem
deliberately to be seeking confrontation that has resulted in our
members seeking ballots for industrial action, and backing those
ballots with substantial majorities for strike action’.
Inevitably, there has been variation between different
companies. For example, Brian Souter, the millionaire chairman of
Stagecoach, which took over the largest train operating franchise at
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South West Trains, has adopted a particularly aggressive
management style towards the RMT, even sanctioning managers’
strike-breaking in disputes in 2002 and 2006. Virgin Trains has also
introduced a highly authoritarian style in order to enforce staff
discipline, with HRM attempts to introduce a new young ‘green’
workforce, team working and a strong company loyalty ethos to
undermine union organisation. By contrast, Northern Rail, First
TransPennine Trains and other companies have generally been less
confrontational. On London Underground, ‘Time to Talk’
teambuilding sessions have been organised since 2005 on a line by
line basis, with employees being released from work to meet
managers within a parallel machinery to union negotiation, with
the aim of communicating over the heads of the union reps. LUL
management regularly sends out electronic bulletins to every
depot, station and signal box – as one union rep explained, the key
message is, ‘We’re a great team, we’re all in it together. The unions
just want friction and a fight over everything. But let’s hold this all
together’. Nonetheless, a high proportion of industrial action
ballots and strikes within both transport sectors appear to have
been reactive and defensive protests against managerial attempts to
drive through efficiency gains, worsen conditions of work and
undermine collective union organisation. Issues related to
discipline, and to the dismissal of union reps whom the RMT
believes have been ‘victimised’ for their union activities, have also
been a common grievance that has precipitated action.
One highly significant contextual industrial relations factor that
needs to be taken into account is the operational vulnerability of the
railway and Underground networks to strike action. Clearly, the
RMT’s strategic position, industrially and within the economy and
society more generally, has provided it with enormous potential
bargaining power not only to defend the pay and conditions of its
members, but also to act in a more offensive fashion. Even localised
one-day strikes limited to individual companies can potentially bite
hard: for example, in March 2005, 24-hour strikes by 170 guards in a
dispute over the implementation of a 35-hour working week
effectively brought Merseyrail services to a standstill. On a more
dramatic scale, the prospect of an industry-wide railway strike
threatens to effect a complete shutdown of the network to
commuters, as the RMT’s planned 24-hour strikes over pensions in
2004 and 2006 vividly demonstrated. On the London Underground,
the RMT Regional Council has successfully taken advantage of the
union’s distinct strategic position with a number of 24-hour networkwide
strike threats over the peak-passenger Christmas and New Year
period (1998–9, 2000–1, 2004–5, 2005–6), as well as a threatened strike
Leadership and union militancy
on the politically symbolic London Assembly election day (June
2004), purposely designed to have maximum effect in order to put
pressure on the employers to improve pay and conditions.
Unlike many public and private sectors elsewhere, both
industries have been expanding in terms of investment and jobs,
which has also encouraged union confidence and bargaining
leverage. In 2007, rail travel had reached its highest level for almost
fifty years, and there is a projected increase in rail use of 30 per cent
by 2015 (Network Rail, 2007; Transport for London, 2006). Likewise,
the number of passengers travelling on the Tube has increased by
over 25 per cent over the last fifteen years (Transport for London,
2006/7). London’s status as a ‘global city’ is another important
factor in the equation, with the capital now rivaling New York as
the world’s most important financial centre, and 18 per cent of the
UK’s domestic product being generated in London. The capital is
the origin or destination for 75 per cent of all rail journeys
undertaken in Britain, underlining the extent to which the rail
network is the key to London and the UK’s economy (London
Assembly, 2007: 3). Apart from the current £16 billion Tube upgrade
of stations, signals, tracks and trains, the newly restored St Pancras
International Station, the new London Overground network and
projected Crossrail project (with an east-west link across the
capital), there is the 2012 Olympic Games, which is likely to attract
some 500,000 spectators per day. All of this has given enormous
potential power to London’s rail and Tube workers, and to the
RMT more generally
Both the political economy and industrial relations contexts have
been important in creating the underlying material conditions that
have led to antagonism and strike activity on the railways and
London Underground. They have contributed to workers’
acquiring a sense of grievance or injustice, their attribution of
blame for the sources of their discontent to employers or
government, and the process of ‘social identification’, whereby they
come to define their interests collectively in opposition to
employers or government (Kelly, 1998). But the role of agency –
namely, the leadership role of union reps and activists – has also
been a crucial resource necessary for collective action.
Despite the fact RMT organisation on the railways and London
Underground survived Thatcherism and the 1980s without
suffering any crushing strike defeat, the imposition of privatisation
and PPP respectively in the 1990s and early 2000s impacted
Capital & Class 99
Trade unionism
negatively not only in terms of the fragmentation of bargaining,
the imposition of flexible working conditions and the loss of jobs,
but also in terms of the strength and vitality of union organisation.
On the railways in 1993, in the wake of two 24-hour, network-wide,
all-grades British Rail (BR) strikes in protest at the threat posed by
impending privatisation, there was the ending of the union
subscription check-off facility, whereby union subscriptions were
deducted from salaries, for the RMT (although not for ASLEF).
This helped to plunge the union into a financial crisis and,
combined with the subsequent impact of privatisation and
widespread voluntary redundancies, resulted in the union’s
membership’s shrinking dramatically from more than 105,000 in
1992 to 55,000 by 1999. The ending of BR’s national, regional and
local-level collective bargaining arrangements scrapped a whole
stratum of senior union reps (many of whom were on 100 per cent
facility time), and led, initially at least, to a widespread sense of
disorientation. Likewise on the London Underground, the 1992
imposition of a ‘Company Plan’ involving completely new
employment contracts, working arrangements and collective
bargaining structures across the whole network, represented a
serious defeat for union organisation, with the loss of some 5,000
jobs between 1993 and 1994 (Darlington, 2001: 10). The introduction
of PPP that followed further undermined the strength of union
organisation, notably with a marked decline in the level of
membership on the privatised maintenance side.
Yet, paradoxically, in the years that have followed there has been
a relatively successful revitalisation of RMT organisation on both
the railways and London Underground, with the re-fertilisation of
a new layer of union reps and activists. In part, this union renewal
was encouraged by objective conditions, with an overall lowering of
the average age of the workforces in both transport sectors, the exit
of many fairly bureaucratised union reps and branch officers under
the old structures, the emergence of a new generation of (in many
cases younger) activists forced to adapt to the radically fragmented
and transformed bargaining arrangements, and the different
relationship between union reps and the membership encouraged
by such broader changes. Also important has been the historical
legacy of the formation of grassroots unofficial left-wing caucus
groups determined to rebuild the strength of the union through
the organisation of militant collective struggle.
On the railways, the Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic
Union (CFDU), established in 1992, sought to revitalise and
overhaul the RMT’s internal democratic structures and to directly
challenge the moderate industrial and political leadership of the
Leadership and union militancy
general secretary, Jimmy Knapp, for having failed to mount
sufficiently robust opposition to the impending privatisation
process. At its height in the mid-1990s, the CFDU’s loose national
network brought together up to 300 union officials and activists,
members of different left-wing political parties and a much
broader layer of independent non-party industrial militants and
activists. It produced a regular newsletter, organised periodic
national meetings in different parts of the country, and had the
backing of almost forty union branches and some Regional
Councils, as well as among members on the Council of Executives.
Individual supporters played a highly influential role within a
series of national strikes by ‘permanent-way’ signal, telecoms and
overhead line infrastructure workers over pay, conditions and hours
in 1998, and a multi-company and industry-wide campaign of
strikes by guards over their safety responsibilities during 1999–2003.
On the London Underground from the early 1990s, there was the
emergence of a similar, although less formally constituted, network
of left-wing union activists to prominence. This involved a well
organised chain of influence stretching from union reps into the
union branches, London Regional Council and Council of
Executives. As on the railways, it embraced a range of members of
political parties (notably from the Socialist Labour Party, led by
Arthur Scargill) and non-party militants who were able to provide
an influential leadership role, with an industrial strategy of
militant opposition to management informed by broader left-wing
political concerns (Darlington, 2001, 2008, 2009a, 2009b).
One important fruit of the left’s rising influence inside the
RMT generally was the huge majority in support of Bob Crow’s
election as general secretary in 2002. Crow, who had been a
supporter of the CDFU (as well as an ex-member of the
Communist Party and Socialist Labour Party), was elected on a
platform of creating a ‘fighting trade union’ that would campaign
to roll back privatisation, and his victory was a manifestation of a
new-found sense of militant solidarity in the face of the perceived
‘betrayals’ of New Labour. Despite a sustained media ‘red’ scare
campaign, subsequent electoral victories for the left at different
levels of the union and Crow’s overwhelming re-election in 2006
have further confirmed this trend.
As a consequence, although it no longer has any formally
organised such grouping, the RMT has a wide network of
prominent left figures (from Bob Crow and full-time officers to
Council of Executives members and lay union reps and activists on
the ground) with fairly explicit left-wing political values, ideology,
motivation and commitment, who from the early 2000s have been
Capital & Class 99
increasingly influential in shaping the union’s rejection of social
partnership in favour of the mobilisation of members as the means
to win concessions. This has made it easier for an internal union
culture of militant oppositionalism directed towards employers
and New Labour, combined with robust collectivism and an
assertive style of leadership, to pervade the union, especially on
London Underground.
Before looking in more detail at the specific role of left-wing
political leadership inside the union, we can explore a number of
important features of RMT organisation that have, to a large
extent, been affected by such left-wing influence, and which have
contributed to the industrial and political militancy evident in
recent years. The RMT is a relatively small, clearly defined and
specialist (rather than general) ‘industrial’ union that organises
across the transport sector, thereby embracing all grades of
employees, skilled and unskilled. The industrial and all-grades
nature of the union provides the RMT with a clear identity,
helping to encourage a high degree of attachment and loyalty to
the union, and there remains a relatively high level of union
density on both the railways and the Tube. The union has
established a highly democratic/participatory form of structure
and organisation, which includes the election (rather than
appointment) of all national and regional full-time officers (who
are subject to re-election after five years), and a directly elected
lay-member Council of Executives, whose members must
relinquish their posts after a three-year term of office. In addition,
central decision-making powers lie in the hands of the lay national
grade conferences (for engineering, signalling, train crew and
shunting, and station staff) and the Annual General Meeting, with
delegates excluded from attending for more than a three-year
successive period, thereby encouraging a high degree of devolved
activist engagement.
Indeed, in both transport sectors there is a sizeable layer of local
RMT reps as well as health and safety reps who, by virtue of the
operational significance of safety, also play an important union
role. For example, on the London Underground there are well over
a hundred union reps and almost as many health and safety reps
amongst a network-wide RMT–LUL membership of about 6,100
members, excluding other RMT members who work for Metronet,
Tube Lines and private cleaning companies. Such figures are much
higher than those recorded in many other industries by the 2004
Workplace Employment Relations Survey data (Kersley et al.,
2006). Attendances at the RMT’s fourteen Tube union branch
meetings average between fifteen and twenty members, although
Leadership and union militancy
some (such as Finsbury Park) attract thirty to forty members. The
London Regional Council, with delegates from every Tube branch,
regularly attracts about sixty to seventy union reps and activists to
its monthly meetings. On the railways, there is also a relatively
sizeable layer of union reps, although this varies between
individual companies and stations. For example, at Bristol Temple
Meads station, which employs about 550 workers, there are fortyeight
RMT reps. The Bristol rail RMT branch, with a membership
of about 1,000 members (spread across a wide geographical area),
attracts a regular monthly attendance of about twenty-five reps
and members, with as many as fifty or sixty on occasion.
Centralised union leadership has combined with the initiative of
activists from below. On the one hand, Crow has noticeably
stamped his combative/oppositional leadership style towards
management and New Labour on the union, and helped to shape
policy issues. On the other hand, the large milieu of assertive and
combative lay workplace reps and activists has also played a crucial
role in advocating and winning support for the mobilisation of
union members in collective action. Such activists have been
important in ‘framing’ issues by deciding which issues and
initiatives to take up, framing them in antagonism to employers and
government, and displaying leadership and organising skills. One
expression of this has been the substantial ideological and
propaganda effort consistently mounted at different levels of the
union, involving numerous regular newsletters, leaflets, emails and
text messages, which have operated in a context in which
management has engaged in counter-mobilisation to thwart
effective union organisation and collective action.
The RMT’s strike strategy has also been an important
contributory factor to the reinvigoration of union organisation.
The proportion of members voting in individual industrial action
ballots, based on a fairly arbitrary selection of fifteen different
disputes across both transport sectors over recent years for which
figures are available (Darlington, 2007), has been a highly
impressive overall mean of 58 per cent and a median of 64 per
cent. Most ballots have returned overwhelming majorities in favour
of action, with an 82 per cent mean and an 84.3 per cent median.
Such relatively high levels of participation and support have
bolstered the RMT’s bargaining position and provided visible,
material, measurable and high-profile examples to its members of
the way in which the union can achieve its objectives for their
benefit. In the process, this has contributed to the boosting of
members’ self-confidence and their sense of collective power, and
in turn encouraged union activism and recruitment. For example,
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the LUL RMT engineering branch experienced an influx of
dozens of new members as a result of the combative stance it
adopted in the 2007 Metronet strike (Darlington, 2008).
Such a strike mobilisation strategy has been accompanied by the
RMT’s comprehensive application of a distinct version of the
‘union organising’ model. This has involved a national campaign,
coordinated by a special organising unit set up in 2002, to recruit
new members, not only amongst the ‘core’ railway and Tube
workforce of drivers, guards, signallers, infrastructure workers and
station staff, but also amongst groups which had become
marginalised by privatisation, such as cleaners, catering and
security staff. In the process, it has won new recognition
agreements (for example, with infrastructure companies McGinley,
Renown and Grantrail, station catering company Select Service
Partners, and security firms Securitas and Chubb). But the union’s
strategy has also involved a prioritisation of the development and
creation of active, self-sufficient and sustainable union reps able to
provide effective workplace representation, including the
establishment of a new training centre in Doncaster. Likewise, a
national database of some 1,200 activists who are not union reps –
there are 2,000 union reps – but who are nonetheless willing to
become involved in recruitment has been compiled and utilised. As
a result of such organising efforts, the union has not only had
success in recruiting new members, but also in strengthening
workplace union organisation and energising reps and activists in a
number of areas (for example, within Eurostar).
As we have seen, one of the legacies of a highly politicised
industrial environment, and of previous internal battles over
strategic direction within the union, is that the RMT has a wide
network of left-wing activists within its ranks. Such activists have
exercised significant industrial and political influence within both
the railway and London Underground networks, albeit to a greater
extent in the (more strike-prone) latter than in the former. Thus on
the Tube’s RMT Regional Council, there has been a combination
of what one union activist has termed a ‘political left’ and a
‘syndicalist left’. On the one hand, a number of hard-left political
organisations have representation on the Council of between two
and six members each. There are also a number of delegates who
are no longer formal members of a political party, but who used to
be members of one or another group in the past, and who remain
highly political in their overall approaches. On the other hand, the
Leadership and union militancy
Left-wing activism
‘syndicalist left’ element is composed of a broad variety of
industrial militants, most of whom are, like their party
counterparts, implicitly anticapitalist in outlook, adopt a
consistently adversarial approach to management, play a key role in
leading disputes, and necessarily take up political arguments in the
process of mobilisation.
While formal left-wing political party representation is much less
evident on the national railway network, there are some very
prominent left-wing-influenced activists amongst the different
grades and within individual companies, and most of the RMT’s
full-time organisers and lay members of the Council of Executives
are likewise noticeably on the left on industrial and political issues.
Many of these activists are motivated not only by the struggle
against workplace injustice or industrial issues, but also by the search
for social justice outside the workplace, giving issues a political
dimension, invariably with an anti-New Labour edge. In other
words, then, if privatisation and PPP and its ramifications have
contributed to the politicisation of industrial relations and trade
unionism, both transport sectors have collected together a layer of
left-wing activists with ‘axes to grind’ within a more or less politically
informed agenda. Apart from their impact on the nature and extent
of strike mobilisation within the union (Darlington, 2008), evidence
of the influence of such left-wing activism on a much wider layer of
members can be explored in relation to the Iraq war and the break
with the Labour Party.
From the outset, the RMT opposed the government’s military
intervention in Iraq and officially supported the Stop the War
Coalition movement of opposition (Murray & German, 2005).
Across the country, individual regions and branches, including the
union’s AGM, endorsed this stance. Likewise, the Regional Council
on London Underground, with a policy of calling for the withdrawal
of British troops, mobilised dozens of members for the mammoth 15
February 2003 anti-war demonstration. Immediately after the 7 July
2005 London bombings, the union made it clear that the bombings
were a criminal act and sent its sympathies and solidarity to the
families and friends who had lost loved ones. But Bob Crow also
explained, ‘There is no getting away from the fact that the war Tony
Blair led us into in Iraq was a criminal act too. That war was based on
a pack of lies and it has now resulted in the very escalation of
violence that we, as part of the anti-war movement, warned of ’
(Crow, 2005). The union’s left-influenced Tube Regional Council
emphasised the way in which workplace safety was closely
intertwined not just with government economic policies, but also
with the military adventures it was pursuing abroad. First, it argued
Capital & Class 99
that while the union was constantly being told by government that
privatisation and PPP were necessary for much-needed investment in
public transport, health and education, there appeared to be a
bottomless pit in the public purse with which to fund wars. Second, it
drew attention to the way in which the private companies who were
making huge profits from the railway and London Underground
networks, through the intensification of work and the deterioration
of safety protection, were the same companies who were profiting
from the lucrative contracts awarded to them by the US and British
governments in ‘reconstructing’ Iraq. The July 2005 bombings, it
argued, made those links starker than ever before (RMT, 2007b).
As a consequence, in the hours immediately following the 21 July
2005 attempted repeat bombings in London, leading Tube RMT
reps refused to encourage their members to work normally as they
were requested to do by London Underground and by the prime
minister, Tony Blair (via the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms,
COBRA).5 One union rep recalled:
There was an attempt to get the unions on board, to agree to
send out a political message that it was nothing to do with Iraq,
it’s just loony Islamic fundamentalists and we won’t give in to
them … We didn’t accept it. Everyone knew it was the Iraq war
that caused it. We told them ‘we don’t trust you, we don’t trust
management, and we certainly don’t trust No. 10’. … a number
of our members refused to work … [they] wouldn’t go out and
drive the trains or open up stations or continue any back work
until there was an absolute guarantee that the entire combine
was checked, inspected, security cleared. (Interview, 20
September 2007)
After the Tube network returned to normal working, the Regional
Council campaigned for the reintroduction of guards on trains,
greater station staffing numbers and better communications, and
argued that in the event of another confirmed attack, the whole
system should be closed in a coordinated manner to allow for safety
and security checks prior to its reopening. It also reasserted the need
for the union to campaign on a wider social basis as an affiliate to the
Stop the War Coalition to deal with the ‘root cause of the conflict’:
US–UK foreign policy. Although the proposed practical measures
were framed around the issue of safety, the RMT’s stance was
clearly informed by an explicit left-wing political set of assumptions
related to opposition to the war in Iraq.
The influence of the left inside the RMT was most decisively
demonstrated in the crucial role it played in encouraging the
Leadership and union militancy
union, following a number of years of internal debate, to break its
historic link with the Labour Party on the basis that New Labour
had destroyed the party’s core principles. Historically, the RMT
leadership (like that of its predecessor union, the NUR) had
always been proud of the union’s strong links with Labour at all
levels. Under Knapp’s helm as general secretary, the union had
established particularly close links with the shadow Labour
Cabinet, and from 1997 had high expectations of the incoming
New Labour administration. In addition, a significant number of
union activists were Labour councillors, and at the grassroots
level, the union boasted the highest density of Labour Party
membership of any trade union, proportionate to its size, with
3,000 members (Tucker, 2002; Berlin, 2006: 133). Though some
leading members, many of whom were associated with the 1990s
CFDU grouping, had left to join the Socialist Labour Party,
formed following Labour’s rejection of Clause Four, there was
little grassroots support for the idea of disaffiliation. But the
process of dissolution of the historic link came by a series of
incremental and increasingly acrimonious stages of confrontation
with the Knapp leadership, as a growing section of the union,
faced with New Labour’s neoliberal policies, became unhappy
with the leadership’s loyalist approach to New Labour.
The election of Bob Crow emboldened the left elements inside
the union, who decided to throw down the gauntlet over the
question of the use of the RMT’s political fund, rather than over
the explicit and contested demand for a full-blown separation from
Labour. But in arguing that the political fund should be used as the
members thought best in each circumstance – to back Labour Party
candidates where they were supportive of RMT policies, and to
back other independent political candidates where they were not –
the implicit political justification for a break with Labour was
effectively expressed with increasing vigour and support at
successive union AGMs. The scale of the revolt was underlined
when, following the party’s refusal to accept the RMT’s demands,
on which its loyalty was dependent, for the re-nationalisation of
the railways, the scrapping of the part-privatisation of London
Underground, and the repeal of anti-union legislation, the union
progressively reduced the number of its members affiliated to the
Labour Party and cut back its affiliation fees. In 2003, the union
moved even further along the path of confrontation with New
Labour when it voted in favour of allowing individual branches
and regions to affiliate to, and campaign for, other non-Labour
Party political organisations and candidates at local and
parliamentary elections.
Capital & Class 99
A number of RMT branches, no longer able to stomach giving
local affiliations to constituency Labour Parties, began to support
independent political campaigning. For example, in the Greater
London Assembly elections of 2000, ten RMT London
Underground workers, led by Pat Sikorski (newly elected as
assistant general secretary), ran as candidates as part of the
Regional Council’s Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, in the
process gaining 17,000 votes. This was followed by the RMT
Council of Executives’ decision to allow five Scottish branches and
its Scottish Regional Council to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist
Party, after which Labour’s deputy general secretary, Chris Lennie,
wrote to the union saying it ‘has placed itself outside the
constitution of this Party’. Following a decision to refer the matter
to the Labour Party’s national executive committee with a
recommendation that the RMT ‘be treated as disaffiliated from this
Party forthwith’ (Labour Research, February 2004), a RMT special
general meeting in February 2004 refused to be ‘bullied’ and
decided to reaffirm its policy of supporting other political
organisations that reflected union policies (by a 42-to-8 vote). As a
result, the union was expelled, by which time there were estimated
to be only 300 members of the union left in the Labour Party
(Berlin, 2006: 159).
In January 2006, the RMT, following an initiative from the
union’s left elements, hosted a conference open to trade activists
from other unions to discuss ‘the crisis in working class political
representation’, which delivered a damning indictment of Labour
and scorned the possibility of resurrecting it as a workers’ party. In
2009, in the first major backing for a political initiative outside of
the Labour Party for years, the RMT leadership set up a No2EU:
Yes to Democracy electoral coalition, which stood candidates in the
European elections on a platform of opposition to the Lisbon
Treaty and against EU-led privatisation of public services. In the
process, the left’s activities have contributed to the opening-up of
arguments about a potential political realignment around a new
left-wing party backed by the unions.
Finally, it is possible to discern the left’s influence within the
RMT in the extent to which a form of political trade unionism has
become embedded within the organisation’s activities generally,
involving an explicit opposition to the neoliberal agenda that
engulfs established political parties. Thus, the union has taken
some important steps to broaden the agenda of trade unionism by
making common cause with a range of social movements,
including the Stop the War Coalition, Unite Against Fascism, the
anticapitalist European Social Forums, and the Vestas wind turbine
Leadership and union militancy
Capital & Class 99
company sit-in. All these initiatives have been well supported by
left activists in different regions and branches of the union, and
mark a limited but notable attempt to reorient the union as a social
actor towards a broader political agenda.
In attempting to explain the reasons for the RMT’s industrial and
political militancy on the railways and London Underground, there
have clearly been some important objective features, including the
politicisation of industrial relations and trade unionism as a
consequence of privatisation/PPP; organisational restructuring
and management belligerency; buoyant markets and increased
passenger volumes; the homogeneity of large manual workforces
with a relatively high union membership; and the immediate
impact that strike action can potentially have on operational
services and the public. All of these factors have contributed to the
creation of a favourable environment for workers to engage in
militant union activity, compared with the more quiescent labour
and union responses in other industries in recent years.
But while such environmental features may have created a more
or less favourable context, they have not, in themselves, necessarily
generated a sense of injustice or collective identity. Hence the
importance of the role of union activists at every level of the
RMT, and in particular of left-wing activists, in providing
leadership in the mobilisation of collective discontent and
workplace strike activity, as well as in influencing the political
break with New Labour. The efficacy of mobilisation theory as a
tool of analysis of such social processes deserves due recognition,
despite Fairbrother’s (2005) critique. Conversely, while the mediapropagated
‘agitator theory’ of strikes exaggerates and presents a
distorted picture, the fact that trade union militants and/or leftwing
activists do not in any sense cause the underlying material
conditions that lead to antagonism and strike activity should not
blind us to the way that their activity and leadership is clearly an
important variable (amongst other factors) to an understanding of
the dynamics of mobilisation (Darlington, 2006).
Such a structure–agency dynamic can also help to explain the
relatively higher level of union militancy on the London
Underground compared to on the railways. The Tube network is
situated within a much more compact geographical area with a
closer social network; there is a much higher concentration of
workers both in absolute terms and located within many large
depots/stations; there is much less employer and collective
Some conclusions
bargaining fragmentation; there is a greater degree of public
ownership and therefore of susceptibility to political pressure; and
there is the heightened potential impact of strike action within the
capital, given the density of passengers and the Tube network’s
link to every mainline station, as well as its effect on the City of
London and Heathrow airport. However, also of central
importance is the higher density of union membership, the greater
strategic coordinating role of the Regional Council, and more
deeply implanted and influential left-wing activist traditions.
Beyond such considerations, the case-study evidence also sheds
some light on current debates concerned with union revitalisation.
According to a number of studies (for example, Jowell et al.,
1984–1996; Charlwood, 2003; Bryson, 2003), one of the principal
reasons why British workers generally are not joining unions in
greater numbers is that unions are often viewed as simply not being
effective enough. If the experience of the RMT’s significant
growth in union membership in recent years is anything to go by, it
would seem that what has attracted workers to join the union has
been precisely its apparent ability to deliver in terms of obtaining
real and demonstrable material improvements in pay and
conditions. Nonetheless, in order to be in a position to extract such
concessions from employers, the RMT has had to adopt a
combative stance, often involving the collective mobilisation of
members and the threat and use of strike action.
However, as other commentators (Behrens et al., 2004; Kelly,
2005) have pointed out, much of the literature on the topic of
union revitalisation has equated it simply with membership
growth. But the activities of the RMT demonstrate that
revitalisation can occur on dimensions other than membership.
Thus it is possible to see evidence of variation in outcomes if we
adopt Behrens et al.’s multi-dimensional conceptualisation of
union revitalisation, which moves beyond union membership and
density to embrace economic bargaining power (to achieve pay and
benefit improvements), political leverage (to influence the policymaking
process), and institutional vitality (the capacity to
recognise and respond to changes in the environment). Likewise,
Stirling (2005) has argued that we need to define union renewal in
ways that take into account not only recruitment and growing
membership, but also features such as increased success in
collective bargaining, stronger workplace organisation, greater
militancy, the extent of union democracy, the role of workplace
activists as leaders, and so on. In other words, union revitalisation
and renewal cannot be measured along a single dimension since
they are multi-dimensional. Arguably, on the basis of such a range
Leadership and union militancy
of measures, the RMT has scored fairly well. Its experience belies
the pessimistic claims of those (Coats, 2005) who have claimed that
the unions, like the biblical Lazarus, somehow need a miracle in
order to come back to life.
Meanwhile, Cohen (2006) has recently drawn attention to the
central role of lay union activists to maintaining union
organisation and the process of union renewal. The case-study
evidence presented here appears to underline such an assessment.
Certainly, compared with many other industries in which there are
often workplaces with a union presence but no active union reps to
provide effective representation, the existence of a committed
activist milieu inside the RMT, able to influence and lead worker
mobilisation, appears to be a crucially important feature of union
organisation. But while Gall (2005b) has reminded us that the body
of left activists is considerably smaller today than it previously was,
there is clearly a new generation of RMT members who have been
politically radicalised over the last few years within the national
railway and London Underground sectors. Such a network of left
activists, while no doubt somewhat less politically and
organisationally cohesive than in many other industries in which
the Communist Party previously had a base, nonetheless appears to
have exercised as much ability to influence a wide layer of workers
and lead struggles. Yet the favourable industrial context and
politicisation of industrial relations that has contributed to
sustaining such a development limits the extent of case-study
generalisation that can be made.
Ironically, in advocating the central role of lay union activists as
‘ramparts of resistance’, Cohen (2006) has dismissed the activities
of left-wing political groups, criticising their alleged attempt to
pull workers over to extraneous broader political agendas rather
than concentrating on the prosaic terrain of workplace resistance.
In fact, the case-study evidence suggests that left-wing activists in
the RMT have been crucial to the task of building union
organisation and collective industrial and political mobilisation. Far
from such activists’ ‘substitu[ting] political idealism for strategic,
conscious building of rank-and-file organisation and resistance’ (p.
182), they have enjoyed considerable success in taking up and
articulating members’ grievances and sense of injustice, suggesting
means of redress, organising collective forms of union
organisation and action, and generalising politically from such
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Bagwell, P. S. (1996) The Transport Crisis in Britain (Spokesman).
Batstone, E., I. Boraston & S. Frenkel (1977) Shop Stewards in Action: The
Organization of Workplace Conflict and Accommodation (Blackwell).
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1 The RMT was established in 1990 as a result of an amalgamation of
the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and the National Union
of Seamen (NUS).
2 These figures have been compiled from a variety of published and
unpublished sources, including the Office for National Statistics,
employers, the RMT, newspaper reports and elsewhere. See
Darlington (2007, 2008, 2009a, 2009b).
3 The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen
(ASLEF) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA).
4 In June 2009, RMT membership leapt to 81,017, boosted in part as a
result of the merger of the Oil Industry Liaison Committee (OILC)
as well as by continuing organising success across different sections of
the transport industry.
5 Summary of proceedings of a special meeting of LUL Health and
Safety Forum, 8 July 2005; notes of LUL Health and Safety Forum,
13 July 2005; summary of proceedings of London Underground Ad
Hoc Health and Safety Forums, held on 21 and 22 July 2005.

Rail unions have declared war – but we won’t end public misery by surrendering
Author: Moore, Charles
ProQuest document link
Abstract (English): Announcements state which lavatories are working, as if they – like so many members of the
RMT union – were prone to sudden sick leave. Since the rail-war has now been going on for nearly a year,
passengers not surprisingly want something done about it. […]a recent report from the Office of Road and Rail,
the regulator, has stated that DOO trains (which already operate on 30 per cent of the national network) are
safe. Safety is far more endangered when huge crowds pile into strike-hit trains for hours than by DOO. When
Tory MPs in affected constituencies met her just before Christmas, it was reported that she seemed to squash
tough action favoured by the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling. Southern is not making a profit at all, and it
might be able to invoke its contract’s “force majeure” clause if the Department of Transport tried to take away its
franchise because of the strike. The next bit of the future, after all, is trains without drivers either. If anyone
thinks, however, that even the defeat of the rail unions will give us a railway system, especially in the South
East, answering the needs of a modern travelling public, he…
Links: Check for full text via 360 Link
Full text: Mr Brown, as all fans of Dad’s Army know, “goes off to town on the 8.21,/ But he comes home each
evening and he’s ready with his gun.” Those were the days.
Last Monday morning, I went off to town from Sussex. The train I eventually boarded left at 8.48, but it ought to
have been the 8.11 which, it turned out, had been abolished for the day. We had to stand for the first halfhour
until coaches were added at Tunbridge Wells. The scheduled hour-and-10-minute journey took more than two
hours. The stated reason for the delay was weatherrelated – the amazing fact that it was cold in January.
The situation gave me little chance of getting home that evening in time to be ready with my gun, so I stayed in
London. When I returned the following afternoon, I was surprised to find the train punctual. But actually, it
wasn’t: I was climbing on the earlier train, which was half an hour late. It said it was not going to our station, so
my wife kindly agreed to drive an extra 20 minutes to pick me up. Shortly after she had set off, the loudspeaker
announced that the train would be stopping at our station after all.
Travelling the next day, I found similar impediments. My total journey time was four hours, a quarter of it
standing. The stated reason was an earlier freight derailment, somewhere else. For me, an occasional traveller
who often goes at quieter times, these things are merely annoying. For commuters, often paying more than
Pounds 5,000 a year for their season tickets, they are on the verge of life-destroying.
From the above, readers will probably have guessed that I travel on Southern railway, the subject of the current,
frightful dispute about Driver Only Operation (known as DOO or, colloquially, deep doo-doo). This is not the
case. I go on Southeastern. We are the transport equivalent of those border towns in Turkey or Jordan whither
Syrians flee the war-zone. Ashen-faced commuter refugees from further west in Sussex crowd on to our
platforms, their pitiful possessions packed into their briefcases. The strain is more than the alreadycrowded
network can easily bear. Announcements state which lavatories are working, as if they – like so many members
of the RMT union – were prone to sudden sick leave.
Since the rail-war has now been going on for nearly a year, passengers not surprisingly want something done
about it. The great majority of them come from Conservative seats. Most probably fit the “just managing”
category upon whom Theresa May has lavished her otherwise rather sparing concern. Many make these long
journeys to London because they cannot afford to live there. At this time of year, they may never see their
children in daylight. They feel forgotten. Something Must Be Done.
03 March 2017 Page 1 of 3 ProQuest
But what? Our own MP, the tenacious Huw Merriman, advocates new legislation restricting the right to strike.
He points out that the unions constantly invoke safety to justify their disruptions. The drivers’ union Aslef has
used it as its main excuse. But in fact a recent report from the Office of Road and Rail, the regulator, has stated
that DOO trains (which already operate on 30 per cent of the national network) are safe. Should it not be illegal
to strike when the safety issue is bogus? Safety is far more endangered when huge crowds pile into strike-hit
trains for hours than by DOO.
The Prime Minister, however, is tremendously cautious. When Tory MPs in affected constituencies met her just
before Christmas, it was reported that she seemed to squash tough action favoured by the Transport Secretary,
Chris Grayling. She made it clear that she wanted to avoid a scrap. Stickingplaster measures like another
Pounds 15 million for passenger compensation were applied instead. The MPs left feeling that Mrs May would
have behaved differently if Southern operated in her constituency.
So now the cry is for Southern to lose its franchise and the Government to take charge. This is an
understandable feeling. It is true that the system, by which Network Rail owns the tracks and the trainoperating
companies (TOCs) are accountable for what moves on them, is a recipe for an endless shifting of responsibility
which drags government in.
But this is a dispute about union power. RMT – which runs the conductors – and Aslef are united in few things,
but they would love it if the Government took over. It would thus concede their point that a private company
cannot run a railway. They would have engineered a situation in which the Government would be forced to fight
the unions directly. They would be holding 300,000 “just managing” travellers to ransom.
Better still, they would be the vanguard of the class struggle to return the railways – and, indeed, Britain – to the
Seventies. The defeat of Southern would spread. Our own Southeastern, whose franchise has the same owners
as Southern, Govia, would go next; then others.
Even without union attacks, the franchise system has become dangerously unattractive to entrants. The TOCs
take out only one pound for every Pounds 39 earned. Southern is not making a profit at all, and it might be able
to invoke its contract’s “force majeure” clause if the Department of Transport tried to take away its franchise
because of the strike. The Government urged DOO upon Southern: it had better back it. Do we really want the
alternative – to let these militant union leaders, all called Mick, fossilise the railway system? Better, surely, to ask
why the RMT, though guaranteed all their jobs and higher pay until the end of Southern’s franchise period, still
won’t do a deal. Their real sticking point is the proposal that trains should now be allowed to run without a
conductor/supervisor in defined “exceptional circumstances”, such as when a member of staff calls in sick at the
last minute. Once a train can move without them, their capacity to wreck the system starts to seep away.
The dispute about union power is also about technological change. Talks are currently going on between Aslef
and Southern, under the auspices of the TUC. The RMT turned up, but, to their rage, were excluded. Could it be
that the drivers, gaining an even shorter working week than their current 35-hour, four-day one, and thus more
overtime (which would put some over Pounds 80,000 a year for the first time), might want to deal? And might
not some such deal with drivers be a price worth paying to beat the conductors? The unions, once divided, can
be ruled.
The next bit of the future, after all, is trains without drivers either.
Technology increasingly means that the human element in the service is the most dangerous, not the least.
Soon trains will be able to talk to one another by computer and regulate their flow as they move.
If anyone thinks, however, that even the defeat of the rail unions will give us a railway system, especially in the
South East, answering the needs of a modern travelling public, he is dreaming. Have we got the engineering
skills to deliver the investment? How can we make the changes needed in a system so tight that it cannot
manage a couple of days of frost? Who, as ever, will pay? The Government does not face this. For the
foreseeable future, we will have to go on reckoning that, if we want, like Mr Brown, to get the 8.21, we’ll be late for work.

Who is to blame for the Southern dispute?

Christian Wolmar                                         3
August 2016                       Rail Magazine

It is all too easy to put all the blame on the unions for the disastrous strike on Southern which, as I write, is hitting commuters where it hurts – in their precious tight schedules that have already suffered over the past few weeks as Southern services have collapsed.

However, there is more than meets the eye in this row. Sure, the unions can be exasperating  and the RMT’s press releases sound as if they are entries for Private Eye’s Dave Spart column. Every train operator is a money grabbing  ‘privateer’, every industrial action is ‘rock solid’ and every change by the management ‘puts lives at risk’. However, there is no doubt that the government is taking a very hard line in this dispute because it wants to break the strength of the unions and it is behind Govia’s refusalto compromise..

And not everyone, even on its side, likes this. The surprise and sudden departure of Claire Perry is a clue. Ms Perry was a good minister. She was not one of those politicians who wanders into a Whitehall office all starry eyed and out of their depth, and departs a couple of years later having made as much impact as a moth on a light bulb. She was engaged, travelled widely, thought about the issues and was personally engaging. She was intelligent and clever enough to know that while it was impossible to change the system radically, she could make a difference by applying herself.

Then suddenly she was gone, a victim it seems over the growing debacle over the chaos on Southern services. The precise reason for her departure was unclear and masked by the fact that it coincided with the recasting of the government –it was too extensive to be called a reshuffle – and consequently received little media attention.

Ms Perry did not provide any reason though a few days previously she had mentioned that she was sometimes ashamed to be responsible for the railway and cited the London Bridge debacle. But if that had been the cause, she would have gone months ago. My suspicion is that she did not want to be party to what the government is attempting to do through the dispute. There is no doubt that the union’s suspicions that it is the Department for Transport, rather than Govia which is running the dispute are well founded.

As has been explained in this column before, but is important to stress, the mega Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern arrangement is not a franchise but a management contract. The big difference is that there is no ‘revenue risk’. In other words, Govia, which has the contract, merely runs the services on behalf of the Department and pockets a relatively modest management fee for its troubles. There are performance incentives but these are not that significant and nothing like the gains – or indeed losses – that can happen with conventional franchises. Therefore the risk is all with government.

The fact that this is not simply a local dispute but part of a wider picture emerged when Pete Wilkinson, the franchising director rather gave the game away earlier this year. Wilkinson, an experienced railwayman was brought in from the private sector to rescue the Department’s failing franchise system after the debacle on the West Coast four years ago. Wilkinson is a forceful character who was sceptical of the present franchising system but is keen to make it work. He had argued strongly that new deals must offer added passenger benefits and enhancements, as otherwise there is no point in having the system. However, he has found himself stymied in his efforts to make improvements because of the Department’s refusal to pay for them.

He has become increasingly frustrated with being squeezed between the Department and the unions and his outburst seems to have been an expression of that. He clearly feels the only way to make the improvements he would like see on the railways is to reduce costs through reduced staffing and the Southern dispute is the testing ground for these efforts. In a speech in February which he did not expect to get reported, Wilkinson laid into the unions with all the ferocity of a lion hunting down an antelope. He told a meeting in Croydon hosted by the local Tory MP that there would be an imminent ‘punch up’ with the unions and suggested that the drivers earn £60,000 per year working a three day week, a clear massive exaggeration. He then made an extraordinary statement that seemed redolent of the attitude of Victorian factory owners than a £260,000 per year civil servant: ‘I’m furious about it and it has got to change – we have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. While Wilkinson did later issue an apology, he did not retract any of the claims in the speech, merely saying that he apologised ‘for any offence caused’.

Therefore the press release from the RMT on August 6th does, among the usual moans, has the ring of truth in it. The union expressed disappointment that an offer to suspend the action if Govia accepted the safety critical role of the guards was turned down. Yet, a similar offer in the parallel dispute with Scotrail, over which the Department of Transport has no jurisdiction, was accepted and peace talks are taking place.

General  secretary Mick Cash said: ‘It was clear right from the start of these talks that there was no serious intent from Govia Thameslink to engage in genuine negotiations and that their script was being written from behind the scenes by their government paymasters. You would have thought they would have taken our arm off when we offered to suspend the action in return for a series of guarantees that simply mirror the proposals from Scotrail just a couple of a few days ago’.

My suspicion is that Ms Perry did not support the government line in trying to push through the issue of the role of the guards and taking away their responsibility for door closing. While clearly there are many instances of entirely safe Driver Only Operation, not least on the London Underground where guards were removed along with smoking carriages decades ago, there are concerns that it is not appropriate for the increasingly overcrowded Southern network. It is not just stroppy union officials who are worried about the safety implications but some senior railway managers are fearful that there is likely to be an increase of incidents such as passengers being dragged along by trains or falling on to the tracks. It will not take many of those for the politicians to be under pressure for having pushed through a change that has contributed to injuries or deaths. .

In one of those ironies that have peppered the story of the railways since privatisation, the franchising system may be wrecked by the franchise that isn’t one. Franchising is already under great pressure given the paucity of bidders for new contracts coming up and disputes like this one will not help. The rail companies will not want to take on disaffected workforces fearful that radical changes to their work conditions are being pushed through. Running the train service have always been dependent on the goodwill of the staff and Govia has clearly lost it. Others will be wary of doing so. Who will now want to take on the Thameslink etc franchise with staff –management relations at such a low ebb. Time for the Wolmar question to be revived: ‘What is franchising for?’


RMT disputes are not a return to the 1970s

Christian Wolmar                                         10
August 2016                       Rail Magazine

It’s all happening on the railways. A five day strike on Southern rail services, a walkout over a 2008 agreement at Eurostar and Virgin East Coast also set to be affected by strike action. Sounds like the good – or rather bad – old days of the 1970s when strikes and work to rule protests backed by picket lines went hand in hand with Daily Mail warnings of “the enemy within”.

The longstanding row going on at Southern is the most significant of these disputes because there is clearly an agenda from the government. The Southern contract is not, like most of those granted to train operators, a franchise but rather a management contract. The key difference is that this means all the revenue from fares goes straight to the government and there is no revenue risk for Govia, the operator which just receives a management fee for running services.

Therefore, in negotiations with the unions, it is the Department for Transport which is calling the tune rather than the operator, and it is obvious that the government wants an end to the requirement to have a second person on each train on Southern services. The man in charge of franchises, Peter Wilkinson, made it clear in an unusually candid speech back in February that this dispute was intended to be a key moment in changing past practice. He suggested the unions had been featherbedded for too long and needed to be brought under control: “It has got to change – we have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place.”

Although Govia has said there will still be a second person, it will no longer be the case that this will be mandatory. In other words, services will be able to operate without that second person and there will be nothing to stop a gradual reduction of trains having a customer services person, as they will now be called. That is why both the RMT and the operator/department have locked horns so fiercely in the Southern dispute. The RMT, with some justification, points to a safety risk on making the driver, rather than the guard, operate the doors on very crowded Southern services.

The other two potential strikes have the feeling of grandstanding on both sides, and are likely to get resolved. The RMT, which is the union behind all three strike actions, uses militancy as a recruiting tool and is prepared to go to the brink knowing strikes are costly for employers. It is a tactic that has worked well for years and these two threats of action are just the latest in a long series of similar disputes, most of which get resolved without a walk-out.

So are we back to the days of the three day week and strife on the streets? Hardly. The union movement is a busted flush, ground down by technological changes and restrictive legislation, and is characterised by a failure to adapt to 21st century realities. When I talk to senior trade unionists in the transport industry, they are fully aware that they need to change in order to develop an approach that is more in keeping with their strength in today’s world. However, they are often constrained by activists who dominate their conferences and branches and who are more militant than they are. As for the members supporting action, it is rather like the reasons underlying the Brexit vote: a general disaffection and a way of giving two fingers to their bosses. They are weary of being marginalised and no longer being considered in decisions made by management, so they will support action even if they know that it is not over the real issues.

These disputes, therefore, are about the wider disaffection of workers with managements who are increasingly out of touch and overpaid. They happen in the transport industry because that is one of the few areas where industrial action can still be effective and forces management  to take note. 1973, though, it ain’t.

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  • Preparing for your assessment
  • Checking your work before you submit it
  • Interpreting feedback on your work after marking.


Assessment Criteria

The module Learning Outcomes tested by this assessment task are indicated on page 1. The precise criteria against which your work will be marked is as follows:

  • Using information: Identify and use relevant academic literature to support analysis and to inform discussion of theories and concepts
  • Analysis: Use of argument, models, evidence and techniques in the development of theory and practice
  • Critical thinking: Objectively assess the relative contribution of different analytical approaches and theoretical perspectives.
  • Presentation: Clarity of portfolio presentation, using appropriate English, with correct grammar, spelling and punctuation, with appropriately referenced sources using the Harvard Referencing Methodology


Performance descriptors

Performance descriptors indicate how marks will be arrived at against each of the above criteria. The descriptors indicate the likely characteristics of work that is marked within the percentage bands indicated.

Level 6 % Work will often demonstrate some of the following features
1 70-100


The work varies from very good (70-79%), excellent (80-89%) to outstanding (in excess of 90%). Very good, possibly outstanding or exceptional level of analysis, showing deep critical engagement with a comprehensive range of contextual material.  Demonstration of independent thought resulting in creative responses to the assignment brief and some telling insights. Clear evidence of understanding of current scholarship and research based on an extensive range of relevant sources. Clarity of structure demonstrating complete focus of argument.  Little or no obvious errors in referencing or grammar or syntax. Mature links made between relevant ideas, theories and practice.
2:1 60-69


Clear links between theory and practice. Good coverage of assignment issues. Full understanding of core issues. Evidenced level of understanding of appropriate theory and concepts. Some small repeated errors in referencing or grammar or syntax as appropriate
2:2 50-59


Identifies main issues and relevant theory. Coverage of most of assignment issues. Competent application of relevant theory and states obvious links to practice. Some repeated errors in grammar or syntax possibly failure to apply Harvard referencing standard correctly in places.
3 40-49


Makes few links between theory and practice. Answers question in a very basic way. Describes relevant theory accurately, and some relevant ideas offered. Possibly failure to apply Harvard referencing standard correctly.  Limited coherence of structure.
Fail 30-39


Some learning outcomes and / or assessment criteria not met. Inadequate content with issues not addressed; insufficient evidence of understanding of relevant theory and concepts and only partial understanding shown. Very limited application of theory. Use of extensive quoted passages is evident. Evidence of sufficient grasp of learning outcomes to suggest that the student will be able to retrieve the module on resubmission.
Fail 0-29


No learning outcomes fully met. No demonstration of adequate knowledge or understanding of key concepts or theories.  There is no recognition of the complexity of the subject. Little attempt to engage with assignment brief and has not met learning outcomes. Inadequate demonstration of knowledge or understanding of key concepts, theories or practice.



To help you further (reading):

GUIDED READING: You should read the core text thoroughly –

Key Text

Williams, S. and Adam-Smith, D. (2010) Contemporary employment relations: a critical introduction. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

You are expected to buy a copy of this book, as it will be used throughout the module.

Recommended Reading

Aylott, E. (2014) Employee Relations (HR Fundamentals) London. Kogan Page.

Blyton, P. and Turnbull, P. (2004) 3rd ed. The Dynamics of Employee Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Burchill, F. (2014) Labour Relations.  4th edition. Basingstoke. Palgrave Macmillan

Edwards, P. (ed.) (2003) (2nd ed.) Industrial relations: theory and practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gennard, J. and Judge, G. (2005) Employee relations. 4th ed., London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Harley, B., Hyman, J. and Thompson, P. (eds.) (2005) Participation and democracy at work: essays in honour of Harvie Ramsey. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Noon, M. Blyton, P. & Morrell K. (2013) 4th ed. The Realities of Work: experiencing work and employment in contemporary society. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rose, E. (2008) Employment relations. 3rd ed., Harlow: Financial Times Prentice Hall. (2nd ed. available as an electronic book via OPAC)

Salamon, M.W. (2000) Industrial relations: theory and practice. 4th ed., Harlow: FT Prentice Hall.

Williams, S. (2013)  Introducing Employment Relations: A Critical Approach. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP

In the United Kingdom the National Union of rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), is the militant block representing mainline railway and London Underground staff. Additionally, the Soviet Union mediates for the rights of employees in the left-wing trade unions in The United Kingdom (Darlington, R. 2007). Insight on the contemporary issues in employment relations draws examples from the evaluation of the Railway system in the United Kingdom: the inclusion of mobilization theory explores the level to which RMT leadership plays a significant militancy role in relation to factors challenging the progress of the Union. Factors such as industrial privatization, heavy taxation on employees, and more working hours with a relative low pay are among the factors addressed by the RMT union leadership (Bagwell, P. 1996). Subsequently, the research focuses on analyzing the state of workplace union representative of organizations in Britain by providing evidence and solutions on the current resilience and the struggles of organization unions to curb irregularities related employment.


Implementation of Kelly’s work on mobilization theory has been integrated in the Industrial sector in Britain since its formulation a decade ago. Extensive research shows that Kelly’s argument attempt to explain the relation between activist and worker’s in realization of center for bargaining agreement within contracts. However, several scholars such as Fairbrother have criticized Kelly’s ideology saying that the model is a mere analysis of a leader-oriented dichotomy as opposed to a model that embraces the nature of work and employment relations (Fairbrother, P. 2005). Fairbrother, goes on to argue out that it is important to abandon Kelly’s mobilization theory model and adopt a mechanism that explores all the conditions of a workplace organization: such as unionism, activism, workers’ welfare, and working conditions. As such, ideas in this paper seek to present multidimensional set of evidence in relation to the role played by workers union such as the RMT union to champion for the rights of employees. Notably, the paper will have several sections to discuss the relevance of the assigned topic as shown below.

Leadership and union militancy: the case of the RMT

The case study present discussion for the analysis of the factors affecting the RMT union of workers in Britain where there are two different sets of ideologies. First, there is the plight for the employees’ welfare: including the unforgotten workers such as security personnel and chefs in the rail industry (Berlin, M. 2006). Secondly, there is a heated debate on the noble social class which is frustrating the employees and exploiting them. The poor relationship between the employees and the unions in London is addressed by the late Ms. Claire Perry in her fight to change the ‘system’ towards realizing and appreciating the welfare of the employees. Recent, research shows that the stakeholders and policy makers in the rail industry are benefiting much at the expense of the employees’ efforts and resources.

Besides her efforts to champion the rights of rail workers, Perry faced challenges from different channels the government being part of the scheme. Amicably, the same force of resistance from the government saw Pete Wilkinson, the franchising director and an experienced railway man opting to quit office mandate when the government could not finance his plans: Wilkinson argued that the government was ready to offer civil servants large salaries pay while offer peanuts to the workers at the RMT. As a result, employees resort to striking for as long as 24 hours a day for three days consecutive. However, for every problem there is always a solution, the paralyzed RMT union of employees was redeemed when Bob Crow, a supporter of the CDFU and an ex-member of the CPSLP was elected as the general secretary of the franchises in the year 2002. Crow helped the employees by fighting against privatization of trade unions and establishing a centre for bargaining agreement for the union. Furthermore, the contemporary issue in employment relations in Britain is explained by the journal on the state of workplace union reps organization.

The state of workplace union reps organization in Britain today

 In Britain the period before 1970 marked a regime where union employees were exploited and worked under harsh conditions and terms. The period saw Britain being associated with strikes from time to time. Mcllroy and Daniels argued that the period before 1970 is associated with workplace representatives being unable to negotiate for the benefit of employee’s welfare; instead they were submissive to the hostile bourgeois force Edwards, C. 1987). Similarly, Charlwood and Forth (2008:19) were of the opinion that incompetence of the workplace representative paved way for the exploitation of the employees, widening the gap between collectivism and unionism, and diversify the governance of workplace from a pluralist assumption to a unitary system of governance. That said, the section deals with evaluating the strength and weaknesses of the current representatives of unions in Britain: a period marked as the New Labor.

To start with, it is important to identify some of the weaknesses associated with the New Labor regime. First, the period saw an increase in the bureaucratization and privatization of trade union in Britain (Coats, D. 2005). For instance, during the 2000s regime trade unions opted to shift from conservative nature of having on-site stewards to centralized governance that involved management of different worker by one person. Additionally, studies by the WERS shows that the New Labor regime is associated with trade union representative being the aged and incompetent in championing for the rights of employees and advocating for the inclusion of centre of bargaining agreement. According to Waddington, 2009, he is of the opinion that majority of the bureaucratized representative liaised with the noble class of employers and union officials in acting as obstacles towards fair election in the union and to a greater extent operating as inhibitors to achieving a centre for bargaining agreement (Darlington, R. 2006, 487). With that in mind, it is wise to also recognize the strengths associated with the state of workplace reps union organization during the conservative era and the New Labor regime.

 Despite the discussed setbacks associated with the shift from the conservative to New Labor era, it is important to note that the survey by the WERS is a prescriptive analysis rather than a descriptive evaluation of the problem on the ground. As much as the New Labor record a period of increased strikes, bureaucratization, and privatization of trade unions: where there was a decline in the workplace union strength, the regime also records positive results both in the public and private sector (Crow, B. 2005). For instance, report by the TUC approximated that around 150,000 health and safety representatives have been deployed by the trade unions to ensure site safety. Moreover, almost 20,000 union learning reps have been allocated in workplace to provide training and development: majority being women representative, this is in consideration with the BME.

What is more, the provided evidence on the strength of the New Labor is not enough as there is also the balance of power between employers and employees. As much as employers are in control of trade unions, shop stewards and other workplace union reps still play a significant role in resisting, amending, and to some extent influence the management initiatives: they form the backbone of the union movement that is responsible with championing the rights of employees welfare (Batstone, E. 1977). To that end it is important to analyze the industrial relations under a conservative government as shown below.

Industrial relations under a conservative government: a journal comment

For an organization to realize its mission, vision, and value statement it is of great importance to integrate its culture and climate. Organization culture and climate helps in creating good working relationships between staff members as it breeds creativity through interaction (Frege and Kelly, 2006, 20). For instance, the RMT union is made up of members who share the same ideologies and problems: under payment and exploitation. Therefore, for the RMT union, the state of workplace is determined by the type of relations between their employers and lay union representatives (Darlington, R. 2008).

Having said that, I consider the analysis of a journal by Richard Mitchell on the laws affecting industrial relations being useful as he argues out that the Fraser Government industrial policies are political based aimed at accomplishing individualistic interest as opposed to realizing the needs of employees in the industrial sector (catalyst, 2005). Mitchell goes ahead to talk of the Australian trade union movement that occurred in 1997 gained nothing while championing for the centre of bargaining agreement and welfare of employees. In my opinion, it is considered wise for any trade union to have a deal with the government in a civilized manner so as to reach an agreement. Likewise, it is better for the government to have mechanism in place to boost productivity through creating better working terms and conditions. Moving forward, a build up to understand contemporary issues in employment calls for analysis of the emotional labor and personality at work as discussed below.

Emotional labor and the living personality at work: labor power, materialist subjectivity and the dialogical self.

The discussion builds evidence from the understanding of Hoch child’s primary emotional labor: a tool for developing materialist theory of labor subjectivity relating to Marxist tradition (Behrens et al., 2004). Implementation of Hoch Child’s aspect of emotional labor paves way for the development of subjective-collective theory of labor power with references outsourced from Vygotsky’s concept of unity of thought speech to theorize the relationship between labor and consciousness.  An integration of Bakhtin’s materialist concept of emotion in labor activity with the Hoch Child’s concept of emotional labor and Vygotsky’s psychology ideologies provides a platform understanding of collective work responsibilities, role of managers, and the need for paying attention to employees’ feelings and behavior (Cohen, S. 2006). Using the mentioned model, it is easy to draw illustration from the leadership at the RMT union in Britain and evaluate the underlying factors associated with the conservative and new labor regime. For instance, to avoid the strikes in the union, under payment, and exploitation of the workers by the employers, the trade union officials together with the government could have implemented the Hoch Child’s concept of emotional labor and Vygotsky’s psychology ideologies to have the centre for bargaining agreement. After integrating the described models is it possible for employees to strike? The answer to the question lies in the discussion below.

The interplay of structure and agency dynamics in strike activity

The section of the paper builds on the concept of mobilization theory by Kelly, a theory that examines and evaluates the relation between structures and agencies of strike. The case study is leadership in the RMT union in Britain, where an investigation is set forth on the strike by 2,300 staff at the private rail industry lasting for almost two days: with focus on the type of relationship between militant workers, the trade union officials, and the left-wing politics (Batstone, E. 1978). Survey by the WERS and structured interviews were conducted within Metronet and the London Underground (Darlington, R. 2002, 97) Also, personal observation was used to solicit information from the 24 RMT workers. After interaction with the participants it was evident that the union leadership failed in mediating with the workers on having a centre for bargaining agreement.

Trade union officials overlooked the employees’ welfare and failed to mobilize the workers into soaking one language. The bureaucracy and privatization of the trade union only acted as a catalyst to having the strike continue (Gall, G. 2006, 10). However, the inconveniences could have been avoided only if the trade union officials and workplace representative implemented the Hoch Child’s emotional concept of labor and Vygotsky’s psychology approach in realizing and appreciating worker’s feelings and behavior. Therefore, it is clear that the multi-dimensional set of strike activity and dynamics are a result of undermining the political and social factors in an industry. The discussion then paves way for discussion of the role geography plays in industrial relationships.

Spatialising industrial relations

The distance between a workplace and the employee’s place of residence has an influence on the level of production. The closer the place of residence to the industry, the increase in time devoted to work. The argument is clarified by the famous geographer, Waldo Tobler, who is of the opinion ‘fist law of geography’: that everything is related, with near objects being closely related than distant objects (Bryson, A. 2003, 11). An assertion that social life has particular spatiality, in this context the closer the employee is to the work place the higher the productivity levels.

Further explanation on the relationship between geographical landscape and industrial relations has three significant roles. First, there is integration between the IR practices and the economic landscape where social actors respond to changes brought about by the IR practices. That is to say that the expectations and behaviors an employee are directly influenced by their actions towards their geographical landscape. Secondly, economic geography is directly proportional to the productivity of employees (Bryson, A. 2003, 11). For employees to be termed productive or unproductive their economic geographical actions play a role either to their advantage or disadvantage. Thirdly, geographical effects influence the growth of an industry. For instance, before allocation of an industry survey and research is done to determine the availability of raw materials and to some extent the availability of labor within the geographical zones. In Britain’s RMT union, geography plays a significant role in determining the profits of the organization. For instance, Mr. Brown, an army officer reported that the trains in London used to delay with either twenty or thirty minutes and it had an impact on the economic production of the state. In his view, location of the railway station was far from his home: but still he had to board another train that made her wife to drive extra thirty minutes to pick him.


Finally, it is possible to discern that the industrial relationship between RMT union and its employees are at its best, but there are several positive measures being taken to strengthen and address the plight of the employees.  For instance, 2,300 employees opted to strike for almost thirty six hours to have their opinions realized and appreciated. The resultant outcome had a negative economic impact on the company as well as Britain’s economy. Above all, drastic measures such as the election of Bob Crow salvaged the employees’ welfare even though it was not fully implemented (Ewing, K. 2003). The action saw Ms. Perry giving her best in order to change the ‘normal’ routine of the RMT union. That said it is important to realize the positive role played by the RMT in ensuring health safety on site and allocating union learning reps to offer training and development strategies on site.


Bagwell, P. S. (1996) The Transport Crisis in Britain (Spokesman).

Batstone, E., I. Boraston & S. Frenkel (1977) Shop Stewards in Action: The Organization of Workplace Conflict and Accommodation (Blackwell).

Batstone, E., I. Boraston & S. Frenkel (1978) The Social Organization of Strikes (Blackwell).

Behrens, M., K. Hamman & R. Hurd (2004) ‘Conceptualizing labor union revitalization’, inc.

Frege & J. Kelly  (2000) (eds.) Varieties of Unionism: Strategies for Union Revitalization in a Globalizing Economy(Oxford University Press) pp. 11–29.

Berlin, M. (2006) Never on Our Knees: A History of the RMT, 1979–2006(Pluto Press).

Bryson, A. (2003) Working with Dinosaurs? Union Effectiveness in Delivering for Employees, Policy Studies Institute research discussion paper no. 11(Policy Studies Institute).Catalyst (2004) Renaissance Delayed? New Labour and the Railways, working paper (Catalyst).

Catalyst (2005a) The Railways in a Third Term, pre-election briefing paper (Catalyst).

Charlwood, A. (2003) ‘Willingness to unionize amongst non-union workers’, in H. Gospel & S. Wood (eds.) Representing Workers (Routledge).

Coats, D. (2005) Raising Lazarus: The Future of Organized Labour (Fabian Society).

Cohen, S. (2006) Ramparts of Resistance: Why Workers Lost Their Power and How to Get it Back (Pluto Press).

Crow, B. (2005) ‘It’s the war, stupid’, Across the Tracks, July.

Darlington, R. (2001) ‘Union militancy and left-wing leadership on London Underground’, Industrial Relations Journal, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 2–21.

Darlington, R. (2002) ‘Shop stewards’ leadership, left-wing activism and collective workplace union organization’, Capital & Class, no. 76, pp.95–126.

Darlington, R. (2006) ‘The agitator “theory” of strikes re-evaluated’, Labor History, vol. 47, no. 4, pp. 485–509.

Darlington, R. (2007) ‘Leadership and union militancy: The case of the RMT’, International Industrial Relations Association conference, University of Manchester, 3–6 September.

Darlington, R. (2008) ‘Striking against PPP: RMT organization in Metronet on London Underground, 2003-8’, British Universities ‘Industrial Relations Association conference, University of the West of England, 26–28 July.

Edwards, C. (1987) ‘Formal industrial relations and workplace power: A study on the railway’, Journal of Management Studies, no. 24.Evening Standard (2001) editorial: ‘Hardliners on the RMT’, 16 May.

Ewing, K. D. (2003) Moving Forward on the Railway: Integrated Industrial Relations and the Public Interest (Institute of Employment Rights).

Fairbrother, P. (2005) book review of G. Gall (ed.) ‘Union Organising: Campaigning for Trade Union Recognition’, Capital & Class, no. 37, pp. 257–63.

Gall, G. (2006a) ‘Organising for the future. Today’, RMT News, September, pp. 10–11.