|The relationship between leadership, mobilization and trade union militancy: the case of the RMT|
|The Rail Maritime Transport (RMT) union, representing the majority of mainline railway and London Underground workers, is currently one of the most militant and left-wing trade unions in Britain. Over the last 10 years it has balloted in favour of and/or engaged in 24-hour and 48-hour strikes on an annual basis on issues such as pay, pensions, and privatization, all with high-profile public effect. As a Guardian editorial (29 June, 2004) commented, the RMT is: ‘A body that flaunts itself as the raucous bad boy of the union movement’. Such industrial militancy has been more than matched by political opposition to contentious New Labour employment policies and the war in Iraq. After reducing affiliation fees to the Labour Party for allegedly ‘deserting its working class roots’ and ‘jumping into bed with its big business friends’ (RMT News, July/August 2001), the RMT allowed local union branches to affiliate to and campaign for other non-Labour Party political organisations and candidates at local and parliamentary elections. The union was finally expelled in 2004 from the Labour Party it had helped to found 100 years previously (Berlin, 2006).
Amidst such developments it is noticeable that over the last few years there has been the rise of a number of left-wing political activists to influential union positions within the RMT (Darlington, 2001). Undoubtedly the most important of these figures is the union’s general secretary Bob Crow, who has represented a much more militant agenda that most of his ‘awkward squad’ counterparts amongst Britain’s trade union leadership. But a much wider layer of left-wing activists (including members of Respect, the anti-war party headed by the ex-Labour MP George Galloway, as well many independent non-party left-wing industrial militants) organised at every level of the union, also appear to have played an influential leadership role in campaigning for the adoption of adversarial union policies towards management and the government, and in the mobilisation of workers for strike action on both the railways and London Underground.
Building on some preliminary studies (Darlington, 2001; 2002; 2006), this paper critically re-evaluates the relationship between union militancy and left-wing leadership by specifically examining the role of RMT activists within Britain’s relatively strike-prone mainline railway and London Underground networks. It does so by drawing on the study of leadership provided by the mobilisation theoretical tradition within sociology (Tilly (1978; McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly, 2001; Tarrow, 1998; Barker et al, 2001), analysing the processes by which the transformation of a set of individuals into a collective actor is normally the work of a small but critical mass of workplace activists. In the process it tests the hypothesis that although the populist ‘agitator theory’ of strikes presents a wildly exaggerated and distorted picture, there is an important element of truth in the thesis within these transport sectors; namely the role of leadership by left-wing trade union activists is an important contributory cause, symptom and beneficiary of workplace union militancy, relative to other variables (such as the impact of privatisation, managerial behaviour, working conditions, etc).
The research specifically examines the extent to which left-wing RMT activists carry arguments and frame issues so as to promote a sense of grievance or injustice amongst workers; encourage a high degree of collective identity which encourages workers to think about their collective interests in opposition to management; urge the appropriateness of forms of militant collective trade union action; play an indispensable role as an initiator or catalyst for mobilisation; combat alternative, more moderate, ideas or conceptions of what should be done emanating from other union members; and legitimise collective action in the face of counter-mobilisation by employers and government (Kelly, 1998).
Methods of data collection include extensive tape-recorded interviews with a range of strategically placed informants from both the RMT and management, analysis of documentary and archival industrial relations material, and personal fieldwork observation. The research specifically examines the experience of the RMT as a benchmark from which to make wider generalisation and to develop substantively informed theories about the relationship between leadership and union militancy.
Barker, C. A. Johnson and M. Lavalette (2001) ‘Leadership Matters: An Introduction’, in C. Barker, A. Johnson and M. Lavalette (eds) Leadership and Social Movements, Manchester University Press.
Berlin, M (2006) Never on Our Knees: A History of the RMT 1979-2006 , London: Pluto Press.
Darlington, R. (2001) ‘Union Militancy and Left-Wing Leadership on London Underground’, Industrial Relations Journal, 32: 1.
Darlington, R. (2002) ‘Shop Stewards’ Leadership, Left-Wing Activism and Collective Workplace Union Organisation’, Capital and Class, 76.
Darlington, R. (2006) ‘The “Agitator” Theory of Strikes Re-evaluated’, Labor History, 47: 4.
Kelly, J. (1998) Rethinking Industrial Relations, London: Routledge.
McAdam, D., S. Tarrow and C. Tilly (2001) Dynamics of Contention, Cambridge University Press.
Tarrow, S. (1998, second edition) Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action and Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tilly, C. (1978) From Mobilisation to Revolution, New York: McGraw-Hill.