How RMT union could have played the strike action differently


by Sunny Hundal    
11:12 am - May 10th 2011

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Evening Standard readers will be well aware that London underground is heading for a prolonged period of strikes following a dispute at TfL. This isn’t entirely unexpected; I think both Bob Crow and Boris Johnson are itching for a fight.

But when I first read the story, my thought was that the RMT union could have handled this differently. The issue here isn’t just the unwillingness of Boris to sit down and talk to the unions: it is a trap set by Conservatives.

The trap goes like this: In phase 1 Boris antagonises and harasses the unions, especially the RMT. Unsurprisingly, one of the two Tube workers who were unfairly dismissed for union activity won their cases at the tribunal.

Boris is refusing to re-instate the workers him because he wants the strikes to take place.

Phase 2 of the plan is to use the strike to whip up further public antagonism against the unions, and use that to push more anti-union legislation. There have already been some abortive attempts.

The Tory problem is that Libdems aren’t yet convinced: tim Farron, Vince Cable et al voted against Dominic Raab’s bill. But an extended strike with plenty of negative coverage from the press and BBC could deal with the Libdems.

I think the RMT is justified in its actions, but I would have done things slightly differently.

The RMT would no doubt have seen the strikes coming – they took a vote after all. They could have made lots of noise, prior to the strike vote, about harassment of union officials at TfL. They could have also asked sympathetic London MPs to attack TfL for attacking the rights of workers to organise. They could have done this through sympathetic press and sympathetic blogs (including this one).

The aim should have been to whip up a storm about anti-union activity at TfL, so the Evening Standard isn’t the first to hear about and report on extended strikes. And even if it does report on them, it cannot easily dismiss the storm over TfL activity.

That could have forced a different narrative to the one we have now. Saying that, Libdem intervention yesterday means they’re currently the best friends RMT has over the whole saga.

All I’m saying is this: when it comes to Tube strikes, unions are almost always the losers in the media and public opinion battle. That matters because the likely outcome is more anti-union legislation. It doesn’t always have to be that way, if only there was more coordination and discussion with allies elsewhere.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


It’s hardly surprising that unions are normalyl the losers when it comes to tube strikes – hardly any of them (including this case) are justified.

In this particular case the unions voted to strike *before* the employment tribunals – the primary legal arbiter – were held.

When londoners find that once again their days are made difficult and miserable because of a small bunch of relatively well paid militants, who enjoy cabs to work, short hours,long holidays and good pensions, led by a socialist dinosaur who is even better paid (Crow earns roughly 100k pa before other benefits) all they wil do is harden their attitudes against them.

I mean seriously – how many non-RMT people do you ever see waving placards?

I really hope this strike goes ahead in a way, as it will put another nail in union coffins, as well as the mayoral election campaign of Ken Livingstone.

Unsurprisingly, the two Tube workers who were unfairly dismissed for union activity won their cases at the tribunal.

No.

One won the case against dismissal, and is still waiting to find out if the Tribunal recommends that he be reinstated as there is still the very serious safety breach that TfL claims was the reason for the dismissal to be settled.

The other chap has not won his case yet – it is still being argued at the Tribunal.

Boris is refusing to re-instate the workers because he wants the strikes to take place.

It’s not actually Boris’ job to make that decision, nor does he have the authority to overrule TfL on staffing issues.

…any more than you would expect David Cameron to be able to order an NHS hospital over staffing issues.

Those two serious mistakes aside, I agree that the RMT is falling into a trap of its own making, and yes, the general public will eventually vote in a government on a mandate to clap down on petty strikes being called by a tiny percentage of the union electorate.

I’ve amended the article to reflect that only one has won his case. That doesn’t take away from my point about why he was dismissed.

As for this not being Boris’s job… the ES says:
. Transport for London, which Mayor Boris Johnson chairs, is now under pressure to reinstate the Bakerloo line driver or face a possible claim for compensation

In this particular case the unions voted to strike *before* the employment tribunals – the primary legal arbiter – were held.

They’re allowed to protest against employers unfairly targeting union workers.

5. shop steward

Why was my previous comment deleted? And another one which was criticial of the article?

When did this blog become pravda?

They’re allowed to protest against employers unfairly targeting union workers.

But wasn’t that precisely what the employment tribunals are assessing?

7. Robin Levett

@Sunny:

Could you put me straight on something? The RMT regularly justifies its strikes as being in defence of rail safety; yet it is prepared in two 5 day strikes to put the weight of the union behind reinstatement of a tube driver apparently (I’ve not yet read the decision – have you?) found by the Tribunal deliberately to have driven a tube train in a grossly unsafe conditon. Is this a consistent position to take?

They’re allowed to protest against employers unfairly targeting union workers

They certainly are, but the RMT are in danger of missing an open goal here. Even the Evening Standard’s coverage of the issue could not fail to note that one of the drivers has already won his tribunal case. If both drivers win and yet remain suspended it will be a real struggle for the right-wing press to maintain the usual narrative of union intransigence, and the chance of a real change to the public perception of the RMT.

9. shop steward

I know that I shouldn’t feed trolls but (a) tribunals are a useful tool sometimes but biased against workers and powerless to reinstate them, and (b) the ‘safety issue’ this bloke was suspended for is a minor one which did not endanger anyone and which drivers are usually just given a warning for. The fact that one driver was sacked when others weren’t for the same thing is obviously victimisation.

I won’t say any more about Sunny’s fence-sitting or he’ll just start deleting me again. Can’t handle criticism.

@ 2 IanVisits

Read what I said – the strike action was ballotted BEFORE the results of the tribunals were held/settled.

Which makes it look like RMT were up for striking regardless of the outcome of the tribunals.

@ 4 Sunny

It is the RMT’s opinion that they were fired for being activists. TFL fired them for other reasons (your link);

Mr Brown said: “While the tribunal has made a finding of unfair dismissal, it has also found that on August 9 2010 Mr Lynch breached an established and significant safety rule and was in part culpable or blameworthy for his actions.”

Mr Lynch was sacked – but kept at home on £45,000-a-year full pay pending the tribunal’s ruling – after Tube bosses said he committed a “serious breach of safety rules” when he drove an empty train with part of the automatic braking system disconnected.

Mr Thomas was sacked after LU claimed he had acted in an “intimidating and abusive way” to colleagues last October following a 24-hour strike. His final tribunal hearing is not due to take place until later this month.

Whilst both might be unionists, the above reasons would be justifiable firing offences in other lines of work. The tribunal hasn’t found that these men were fired for being union activists at all, which makes the justification used for these strikes irrelevant.

I would go as far as to say these two felt they could get away with behaviour non-unionised employees would not be able to, as they felt that they would be able to use their union links to cause huge hassle for their employers in any case where their behaviour might lead to actions.

As another point;

“Mr Lynch was sacked – but kept at home on £45,000-a-year full pay pending the tribunal’s ruling”

45k pa, cabs to work, 8 weeks hols a year, 36 hour weeks and final salary pensions.

Sounds like they have lots to complain about don’t they?

@5 – “Why was my previous comment deleted? … which was criticial of the article?”

I think you answered your own question.

The article is nonsense as it appears to suggest, on the one hand, that the strikes will inevitably receive a bad press (due to media bias, etc. – this I agree with), to be followed up by more anti-union legislation (I don’t doubt it)… and that the way to deal with this is to create ‘a storm’ by engaging with a ‘sympathetic press’ in order to ‘force a different narrative’.

Liberal Conspiracy might be “the UK’s most popular left-of-centre politics blog” but it is laughable to suggest that it can hold a candle to any of the mainstream media outlets. It is also laughable to suggest that any serious paper will change the habit of a lifetime and come out in favour of the unions…

I do hope Sunny is advising Livingstone to take this “I’m not against strike action” line!

Am I alone in remembering the Pentonville Five?

Were anyone truly concerting the overthrow of this government, the conditions would involve draconian laws and sanctions on strikers, and a few good men (or better still women) prepared to go inside for their “crimes”.

I guess that the events of July 1972 are on record and firmly in mind in Whitehall, but beyond the intellect of Mayor Johnson and his Policy Exchange affiliates at County Hall.

Just to be clear, the tribunal has held that although the driver was at fault his dismissal was unfair. TfL has decided not to give him his job back until it sees whether the Tribunal will order them to? They really do sound like they want this strike.

“why was my abusive comment deleted? Why can’t I swear at you? YOU’RE JUST LIKE HITLER AND STALIN!!11″

@15 Jimmy

AFAIK, the driver will not be given his job back, but was offered another non-driving post….

I can see it from TFLs angle. Imagine the press if said driver was given his (driver) job back because of union pressure, despite the fact that he breached established safety protocol. Now imagine if something else happened.

…and there as was thinking the RMT and their strike actions were all about safety, not just naked self interest.

18. Watchman

“why was my abusive comment deleted? Why can’t I swear at you? YOU’RE JUST LIKE HITLER AND STALIN!!11?

Sunny – your blatant editing out of dissident viewpoints is clearly going to extremes now you’re deleting yourself and then arguing about it (comments about normal Socialist behaviour here please…). It’s a good job people like me or Tyler agree with everything the ideologically correct bit of your brain says or we’d never get any comments up round here… ;)

Just to be clear, the tribunal has held that although the driver was at fault his dismissal was unfair. TfL has decided not to give him his job back until it sees whether the Tribunal will order them to?

Re-instatement orders are vanishingly rare.

The tribunal decision itself is here:

http://www.rmtlondoncalling.org.uk/files/SKMBT_75111050609270%20(1).pdf

Potted version: Driver committed a serious breach of safety. However, it was not so serious that it should automatically have led to dismissal, and the reason he was dismissed was that he was being held to a higher standard than other drivers by virtue of his position as a Health & Safety officer.

Reading between the lines, it’s clear that he was a pain in the backside to management (unfounded allegations of bullying, unfounded allegations of unsafe equipment, unfounded allegations of injuries caused to unspecified drivers etc) and that prejudiced the disciplinary panel against him. Unfair dismissal. But very unlikely to be re-instated.

20. shop steward

“why was my abusive comment deleted? Why can’t I swear at you? YOU’RE JUST LIKE HITLER AND STALIN!!11?

Erm, I didn’t swear at you. I didn’t realise swearing was banned outright on this blog or that you were such a sensitive flower.

For those who missed it, I asked why the RMT would give a “****” what Sunny thinks, especially if he hasn’t even joined the NUJ himself yet.

And this will probably be deleted but, for the benefit of those who read it beforehand, there was another critical comment from another reader, without even one swear word, which was also deleted. Worrying signs of increasing paranoia?

Let’s see the NUJ card, Sunny. When you’re a member of our movement, we might start paying some attention to what you have to say.

21. Dan Factor

The public may sympathise with the RMT over strikes about conditions and safety but it’s unlikely they will feel it’s acceptable for passengers to be dragged into disputes about individual workers.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-13347697

Re-employed in a different role. LU claim that the strike is off, RMT are apparently denying that it’s off.

I’m grateful to Tim J @ post #19 for the helpful link.

i have to say that anyone who has been within shouting distance of a disciplinary hearing would recognise clear signs of a management stitch-up.

C’mon! The “offender” was pressured to clear the way for half a dozen backed-up trains, apparently on a stretch of line not under LUL control. He did so “at caution speed”. He notified management that he had been in default. He was canned for it.

Furthermore, as I read one bit, the complainant had to face a hearing chaired by the complainee, when there was already clear evidence of a “history” between the two.

When Vince Cable and Ed Davey can see that TfL are being provocative, it’s rich to find Sunny Hundal dissing the other side.

24. Planeshift

“Sounds like they have lots to complain about don’t they?”

Sounds like the union’s strategy has worked wonders doesn’t it?

Why change a winning formula?

25. Mr S. Pill

@20

Dull reasoning. You don’t have to be a member of something to be able to comment on it.

26. shop steward

Well no, inasmuch as anyone can set up a blog if they want. But I have no interest in what people outside the trade union movement think of how we in the movement conduct our disputes with our employers.

Tim J

Thanks for the link. It’s difficult to see from this how TfL ever thought this case could be defended. Malcolm’s assessment strikes me as pretty accurate.

t. But I have no interest in what people outside the trade union movement think of how we in the movement conduct our disputes with our employers.

And I don’t care that you don’t care what I think either.

At Libcon, we work with unions already. They send us stories, they work with us on stories. I know its hard for some of you ultra-left Trot idiots to accept this, but we have good relations with unions because we are unashamedly pro-union.

Also, we get around 100,000 unique users a month. That means its also possible for unions to work with us to highlight issues they think are important. I happen to think that targeting union activists so they can goad RMT into a stike, and use that as an excuse to clamp down on unions generally is a big issue. That requires some tactical thinking and possible collaboration to fight against. I don’t really need advice from anonymous trolls who have nothing useful to offer than bleat on about how we can’t comment on what’s going on because I haven’t signed up to whatever you want me to. Grow up.

When Vince Cable and Ed Davey can see that TfL are being provocative, it’s rich to find Sunny Hundal dissing the other side.

You’re being a right idiot. I’m not “dissing” the other side. I’m saying that I support their action, but merely that tactically this could have been played differently in the media.

Why do some of you Trots start howling the minute someone says something that doesn’t toe the line or take an absolutist position? Newsflash: the world isn’t as simple as you think and public perception does matter if unions want to protect their rights in law. Hiding in your cubby hole and writing angry things about the Tories isn’t going to change anything.

30. shop steward

Blimey, I knew Sunny was moving rightwards quicker than an ambitious NUS hack but I hadn’t realised it had reached the stage of calling anyone who disagrees with you a Trot.

I’m pleased that trade union press offices use your blog for PR purposes – they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they were ignoring the internet when it comes to putting information across.

But I can assure you that nobody in any regional or national office anywhere is going to be taking the ‘advice’ of someone with no knowledge of or background in the labour movement.

Who thinks that failing to join the main organised trade union (or indeed any union) in your sector equates to “I haven’t signed up to whatever you want me to”. This is pretty basic stuff for millions of working class people in Britain, but seemingly beyond this blog.

NEWSFLASH: any given member of the RMT executive has forgotten more about trade unionism and dispute tactics than you will ever learn in a lifetime on the internet.

(NB apparently you can get deleted for saying “s***” in passing, but calling someone names is acceptable.)

I read the original piece as a cri-de-coeur: RMT “could have done this [i.e. media-management] through sympathetic press and sympathetic blogs (including this one).” Oh dear: the curse of the marginal blogsmith: ignored and left out in the cold again!

Equally, I take the view that, when the eye of the storm is nigh, one is either with us or agin us. It’s the worst time to question the management of the ship, spit on the deck, and talk back to the captain.

And that’s the first time ever, in a long political life, I’ve been mistaken as a “trot”.

Methinks skin is thin.

Malcolm: Equally, I take the view that, when the eye of the storm is nigh, one is either with us or agin us.

I have no doubt whatsoever you thought that from the start of your political life.

shop steward: they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they were ignoring the internet when it comes to putting information across.

Which is precisely what I’m asking for above…. before you came all holier-than-thou. And thanks for your advice on who doesn’t or does take me seriously. I don’t believe I was aking in your vote of confidence.

33. shop steward

So your whole original post was about telling the RMT they should do something they’re already doing? Great!

And I don’t believe anybody has ever asked you for an opinion on anything, but that’s never stopped you offering one on a subject you haven’t the faintest idea about.

‘RMT taking media relations advice from Sunny Hundal’. Priceless!

The substance of this post is actually fairly inoffensive, but coming from you, Sunny, it’s always bound to whip up a storm because you’re often unsympathetic to unions (or, at least, that’s how it seems sometimes).

The issue with your argument, in my opinion, is that you’re approaching the issue from the wrong angle. Your first port of call shouldn’t be to criticise RMT’s PR department, but to criticise the ES for wilfully misleading reporting.

The fact is, the ES is and always will be virulently anti-union. There is no spin available that could mitigate that – except spin which would dilute the cause of the workers, which is in itself anti-union.

It is up to RMT to stand up for its workers, not play nicely with the media, and it is up to us as members of the left to support unions as they organise and fight, not critising them for the quality of their press releases.

The thing about being left-wing is, it is a fundamentally anti-establishment position to take. That’s where the term comes from. It necessarily involves pissing people off and going against the media-friendly way of things on occasion – but you do it because you’re striving for something better. Always pandering to the media / state accepted view of things will only ever deliver tweaks to a system left-wingers are supposed to fundamentally see as wrong.

35. Watchman

Ellie Mae,

The thing about being left-wing is, it is a fundamentally anti-establishment position to take.

What if the establishment is left-wing? Or you just happen to agree with it politically anyway?

No position is fundamentally anti-establishment, since the establishment can also change (albeit an anarchist establishment would be a sight to see, and a contrarian establishment would also be interesting…). To claim otherwise is simply claiming something that cannot be true.

Hmmm, turns out Bob Crow is writing in the Evening Standard.
http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23948501-we-have-no-choice-but-to-strike-for-our-rights.do

I think someone from the Trot Weekly forgot to send him the memo that the media should not be engaged with at all.

And I don’t believe anybody has ever asked you for an opinion on anything

Yeah… I see you’re quite behind on this blogging lark. Still, give it about 20 years I’m sure you guys will realise times have moved on.

Ellie (the Trot Weekly comment above isn’t aimed at you btw) you say:
Sunny, it’s always bound to whip up a storm because you’re often unsympathetic to unions

This is just factually incorrect. We regularly run stuff by unions and promote their stories on here all the time.

It more looks like the usual suspects who rage all day long on Twitter about me every day are ranting again. Doesn’t really bother me, they hate me and I think they’re fruitcakes who are about as useful to a political movement as a hole in the head.

Nice letter in the ES too today, by the way :)

The thing about being left-wing is, it is a fundamentally anti-establishment position to take.

Just so I know what the rules are here that I’m supposed to abide by… being “fundamentally anti-establishment” means lefties should not engage at all with the media… should not talk to the establishment at all, is that right? Is that why Bob Crow is demanding that Boris come to the table and talk to him?

So, apparently, if you’re not TIGMOO, your opinion is valueless, even if it’s palpably right?

Pissing off London voters even more when you could acheive the objective through other means makes great sense to Bob Crow, but not to anyone else who thinks Boris is a cock.

Seriously, don’t go on strike.

Just close the cashdesks and let everyone travel for free. Get Londoners on side and supportive instead of offside, cost management money.

Oh Sunny, don’t do the thing where you take my argument to its most extreme conclusion in order to ridicule it, when you know that’s not what I’m saying!

And thanks re the letter :-)

I’m not taking it to its extreme conclusion. I genuinely want to see evidence of union bashing on this blog….especially by me.

Sunny:
“You’re just like HItler and Stalin”

Really? That’s impossible – you could never reconcile the moustache discrepancy.
You might be just like one or the other – but you can’t have handlebar AND a toothbrush.

I was referring to comment 37.

I don’t see you as a union basher. But because unions are always on the back foot, and always having to defend their existence, which I and other lefties view as necessary; it’s hard to swallow someone on the left responding by criticising the union – regardless of the form that criticism takes.

As someone on the left, your first priority should be to defend RMT – a fiercely brilliant but much maligned union – and then to think about how they could execute their PR better (which in my opinion is a side issue anyway, as I say). When RMT is facing a barrage of anti-union propaganda, I expect the left to openly declare its support, not add to the voices of criticism.

I think it’s important that others recognise the good work Liberal Conspiracy has done in providing a platform for the left: it has tirelessly supported UK Uncut and was one of the first to provide video evidence that the F&M protest was peaceful, it showed endless videos of police brutality during the protests, and it came down on the side of Unite union and against Amnesty International.

I do think you’ve got this issue back-to-front, but that doesn’t mean I write you off as a union basher, and since you’ve not crossed any picket lines, you certainly aren’t a scab.

Watchman

I was alluding to the origin of the term left-wing – French Revolution etc.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_wing#History_of_the_term

@36

Bob Crow is not a Trot. He’s a Tankie. Get it right.

45. shop steward

No point in trying to engage Sunny with facts or arguments. When you reach the stage of political degeneration that you just start shouting “Trot” whenever someone disagrees with you, it’s time for erstwhile colleagues to start quietly tiptoeing away and drawing the curtains.

46. Robin Levett

@Ellia Mae #42:

“As someone on the left, your first priority should be to defend RMT”

Why? That’s a serious question. If someone on your side is acting in a way that will weaken your side, why defend that action?

@45

Aye, well Sunny does have this tendency to use the word “lefty”, which is a favourite among barking mad, Right libertarians and the loons who write for the Torygrpah.

Which side are you on, Sunny? Which side are you on?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iAIM02kv0g

49. Robin Levett

@Elli Mae:

Following on from my #56:

The Metro this morning has a story that RMT has lost more than a quarter of its tube driver membership over the last 3 years; from 1,798 to 1,295. I don’t know whether it’s correct, because the RMT is said to have refused to confirm the figure. If it is correct, however, it does seem to suggest that Bob Crow’s tactics (i) aren’t popular with those parts of his membership that are at the sharp end, and (ii) are in the longer run self-defeating.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    How RMT union could have played the strike action differently http://bit.ly/mBsita

  2. sunny hundal

    While I support the RMT tube strike, I think they could have played it differently in advance http://bit.ly/mBsita

  3. Hugo K Biedermann

    @thewarmjets you've got it all wrong. Liberal media get results, not industrial action, and, er… (is this right? Ed.) http://t.co/laFrMVK

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  7. Daniel Pitt

    How RMT union could have played the strike action differently http://bit.ly/mBsita #unions





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