A “joint statement”, published in the name of the Department for Transport (DfT), eight individual unions organising in the transport sector, and the TUC, has appeared online.
It reports the “first in a series of Ministerial calls” between the DfT and transport unions, and ends with an affirmation that “Transport Ministers have pledged to work tirelessly with the unions to support staff in the transport industry through not only the immediate challenges but also the issues that will affect the sector once the country has overcome this pandemic.”
Good news, you might think. If the pandemic has forced a hostile, anti-union Tory administration into a spirit of dialogue and collaboration with the organisations representing the workers the country relies on to deliver essential services, then that's surely a silver lining.
But all is not as it seems. Tory leopards do not change their spots, even in a pandemic. This DfT is part of the same Tory administration bent on forcing through new laws to restrict transport workers' strikes... the same Tory party under whose previous spells in government our railways were privatised, and, more recently, the drive towards de-staffing and “Driver Only Operation” has accelerated in earnest. This is the same Department for Transport which recently intervened to prevent the a settlement to the South Western Railway dispute that would have retained some role for the guard.
What this statement represents, then, is a blank cheque for collaboration with the bosses and their state at the very moment when workers should be demanding control, and refusing to let the architects and partisans of inequality and exploitation call the shots. We do need dialogue and consultation with our employers and the state; that must take place on as open and transparent a basis as circumstances allow, with the maximum degree of democratic scrutiny and control allowed by the pace needed to respond to changing events.
A collective, state-led, social response to the crisis is necessary to confront it. Clearly, that requires workers in the services integral to that to play our part. A working-class desire for everyone to pull together comes from a good place, usually informed by some elementary spirit of social solidarity. But that should not involve writing blank cheques for the bosses, with whose interests our own remain irreconcilably opposed.
Unions should be issuing our own statements, reiterating our demands for improved working conditions, and highlighting the fundamental structural reality of capitalism that this crisis reveals: that it is our labour that makes society function.
As Eugene Debs, the railway worker and socialist leader, put it: “We can run the mills without them, but they can't run them without us.” Or, as a picket line placard during the Uprising of the 20,000, a strike of migrant garment workers in America in 1909, proclaimed: “Our employers have wealth, but we have the power of reproduction.”
The publication of the statement also points to a democratic deficit within unions. At least within RMT, the largest industry-specific union in the transport sector, the statement's content, nor the decision to co-sign it, were not presented to any level of union democracy. Unity House, RMT's national office, is currently closed, but no attempt was made to seek comment on or ratification of the statement from the union's rank-and-file National Executive Committee, which could easily have been done remotely. One can speculate that the mechanism for signing unions up to the statement was similarly undemocratic in the other union signatories.
A crisis like this will require sacrifice. It will require emergency measures. It will require all of us who are able to make extraordinary efforts to help society through. What it does not require is the suspension of democracy in our movement, nor the suspension of our basic understanding that bosses and workers have opposing interests.