Union mergers need democracy

With the RMT and TSSA moving towards a merger, Chris Strafford calls for democratic unity from below in the workers’ movement (first published here)

“While the railway companies are thus combining their forces, and consolidating their interests, railwaymen have allowed their forces to be split into innumerable sections …”[1]
This warning comes from the May 1911 edition of the Industrial Syndicalist, yet it is just as true 100 years later.

A single union for all rail workers

Appeals to unity are often made by leaders in the labour movement, yet very often what we see is disunity. We only have to look at the recent Coalition of Resistance conference, where aspiring bureaucrats and petty sect leaders talked of the desirability of unity in the anti-cuts movement – and then, out of their own sectarian interests, voted down a motion designed to take steps to bring it about.[2] We must therefore welcome the news that merger talks between the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association are moving forward. On July 22 the two unions announced that they were now in formal discussions to merge and will welcome the involvement of other unions.[3]

Sectionalism is a blight on our movement and puts unions in the sorry position of pitting this or that group of workers against each other – both nationally and internationally, as the reaction to the threat against Bombardier workers aptly demonstrates. Yet the working class in Britain and internationally has a long tradition of attempting to combat sectionalism, by uniting into strong industrial unions. The RMT and its forerunner, the National Union of Railwaymen, were supposed to organise workers in the entire industry.

In 1913 the NUR was born out of the turbulent pre-war working class movement. The new union brought together the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the General Railway Workers’ Union and the United Pointsmen and Signalmen’s Society. With this unity railworkers became a pillar of the triple alliance, which also included other transport workers and miners, that mounted effective joint actions. But, thanks to World War I, a conservative labour movement leadership and the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, unity was undermined and the mass movement fell away.

What was, and is still, needed, however, is for the working class to break away from the politics of trade unionism. So much of the left clamours for favours from the bureaucracy in the hope of gaining positions here and there and seats on union executives. Yet after decades of this sectarian behaviour we have not moved forward and the bureaucracy is even further entrenched. In the context of the financial crisis, the austerity attacks on our class and the revolts in the Middle East and protest general strikes in southern Europe, there is an urgent need for a rethink.

The RMT and TSSA unity talks come on the back of a series of disputes and victories on the London Underground and for maritime workers. On August 1 the Equality Act 2010 (Work on Ships and Hovercraft) came into effect after a long campaign. This outlaws discrimination against EU nationals working on British-flagged ships. The reinstatement of RMT rep Arwyn Thomas, who was unfairly dismissed by London Underground management, was won by militant action in what was more than just a fight for a victimised trade unionist: it was a test of strength. The government knows that if it can defeat the most militant sections of the organised workers’ movement its assaults on our jobs, conditions and services will be easier to push through. Thomas was one of three RMT reps sacked because of their involvement in the fight against cuts on the Underground – Peter Hartshorn and Eamonn Lynch were reinstated earlier in the year.

These small victories have laid the foundation for stronger resistance in the battles ahead. This, along with the RMT’s class-based approach to the Bombardier dispute,[4] is a positive rebuttal to the trade union bureaucrats (not to mention the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, with its ‘British job for British workers’ line). Bringing the rail and transport unions together can strengthen this process if it is done with transparency and democracy.

The trade unions have been leaking members following the defeats our class suffered in the last decades of the 20th century, resulting in the consolidation of the bureaucracy within the unions. In order to reverse this situation, we need to step up the fight for effectiveness and real unity. Communists are against all kinds of sectionalism and fight for “One industry, one union”. As we say in our Draft programme, “Industrial unions are rational and enhance the ability of workers to struggle.”[5] Instead of a situation where several unions compete for members against each other, with leaders individually stitching up isolated sections, the organised working class needs to push in the same direction.

However, the merger process must be accompanied by moves to democratise our unions and make their leaders accountable. For example, the 1993 merger of the National Union of Public Employees, National and Local Government Officers Association and the Confederation of Health Service Employees into Unison was a top-down stitch-up, placing in charge a leadership which has made an art of stifling action and lining their own pockets with huge salaries, pensions, perks and expenses. Nevertheless, it brought together over 1.3 million workers into a single union, with obvious potential as an instrument of working class power.

A big question for any new rail and maritime union is, where is the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef) – and indeed Unite – in these merger talks? Both have a considerable membership in the transport industry, with members facing identical attacks to those of the RMT and TSSA. Even with the offer by RMT and TSSA to open up the talks at some later date, Aslef may prefer to remain aloof – while Unite is likely to consider itself too big and important.

The whole process must be conducted out in the open as far as possible rather than done in secret behind closed doors. Once a deal is hatched, no doubt it will be presented to the respective conferences to be rubber-stamped, with rank-and-file involvement kept to a minimum. Open meetings leading to a democratic congress by transport workers discussing unity could enthuse members of all unions about the process and help overcome sectionalism.

We must demand that Aslef and Unite join the unity talks immediately. We must demand that the leaderships and their proposals be open to scrutiny, fully debated and amended as necessary. Giving workers a say in how their fight is fought will increase our effectiveness, as more workers stop simply relying on the union leadership and start thinking collectively and acting in solidarity.


  1. Industrial Syndicalist No11, Vol 1, May 1911.
  2. ‘Voting down unity while talking unity’ Weekly Worker July 14.
  3. www.rmtlondoncalling.org.uk/taxonomy/term/156
  4. www.rmtlondoncalling.org.uk/node/2322
  5. CPGB Draft programme 3.8. Trade unions: www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1002562

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