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Why I Can’t Agree with the RMT

Ken Livingstone

I HAVE been a supporter of the trade union movement my entire life. Without trade unions, the pay, safety, shorter working week and other rights at work that tens of millions take for granted would not exist.

More than that, trade unions are a core part of a huge progressive coalition that has delivered rights in every field.

In particular, it has transformed London for the better.

It has delivered decent housing for millions of people, expanded London’s transport system, delivered an important element of a better life for pensioners with the Freedom Pass.

It has formed the backbone in fighting for the rights of gay people, for equal rights for women, against any form of racism and has worked with environmentalists and others to protect London’s environment.

In the last 20 years, not only has this continued to transform our city but, every time Londoners have been given the chance, they have voted for such policies – most recently on June 10 this year.

But with power and the capacity to change London for the better comes responsibility and the understanding that, to hold together such a huge coalition, all must make compromises and understand that they can only advance if others do so too.

It is simply not possible, unfortunately, to solve every problem confronting London simultaneously and instantly.

People must know that all must advance together or none will get what they are seeking.

In the last four years, London has begun to overcome two decades of neglect.

Our bus system has been rebuilt. Congestion charging is one of the biggest environmental and transport reforms ever introduced in a city.

Every racist in London knows that they will face the unremitting hostility and the full force of the law from London’s administration.

The rights of lesbians and gay men have been championed.

As mayor, I was able to voice Londoners’ overwhelming opposition to the war in Iraq – an opposition thoroughly vindicated by events.

The RMT, as with other trade unions, has been given access deliberately to the heart of my administration, together with other important groups.

The first meeting of my administration after my election in 2000 was with Jimmy Knapp.

I deliberately made the first full business of my first term to be to meet with the trade unions over the situation at Ford in Dagenham.

Close co-operation with the unions will continue throughout my administration.

It is precisely from this point of view that I have to explain openly and honestly why I cannot accept the current demands of the RMT in the London Underground.

What the RMT has asked for is a four-day week.

I have every desire for employees in London to work the shortest possible week – I value my free time as much as they do.

But London Underground is not a profit-making organisation.

Every penny that it receives comes from national government, over which I have no control, and from fares, which are paid by ordinary Londoners.

London Underground has made clear, with my full support, that it will seek to achieve the shortest possible working week for all its employees that can be self-financed.

Working with the unions, LU has identified savings that will result in all London Underground employees working a 35-hour week by the end of a two-year deal – a reduction of two-and-a-half hours a week.

All pensions of London Underground workers will be protected - unlike the situation on national rail.

Together with a 6.75 per cent pay increase over two years, that is a good deal for Tube employees.

The RMT in London has put forward proposals that could only be met by a huge fare increase – paid for by all ordinary Londoners who use public transport.

That, in turn, would split apart the progressive coalition that delivers everything good in this city. That is why I cannot agree to it.

To do so would not even be in the long-term interests of the RMT or London Underground workers.

To split that progressive coalition would ultimately bring to power a mayor and administration not committed to working with the trade unions – whatever short-term differences may exist – but one committed to assaulting and attempting to smash the trade unions, as is constantly urged in the pages of newspapers such as The Times and Daily Mail.

It gives me no pleasure whatever to have a conflict with an important trade union and one with which I have tried to create the best possible relationship.

But I genuinely believe positions taken by some members of the RMT executive are not helpful for pursuing the policies of creating a progressive alliance in London on which every success we achieve is based.

In particular, a majority of the RMT executive declared a strike on polling day, June 10, simply in order to maximise pressure on me because I was up for re-election.

They did so regardless of the electoral consequences. It was an irresponsible decision.

Those who pushed this decision through gave no thought to how their actions would disrupt the wider progressive coalition in London or how the public as a whole would regard a strike on election day.

It is to the credit of Bob Crow – and I have paid public tribute to him for this – that he pulled his union back from that suicidal position.

But, as I have said, the demands that the London Underground RMT has made would result in Londoners as a whole, through fares, financing a special deal for the RMT and I cannot accept the consequences of this.

The compromise that has been made delivers a good deal for RMT members and also keeps progressive forces in London together. That is why I will not shift from it.

I want it to be clear, because there will be many attempts in the press to distort it – as long as I am mayor, relations with trade unions will be central to my administration.

The right to be represented by a trade union is an essential democratic one.

There will be no anti-trade union policies pursued under this administration.

But that fundamental principle and strategy does not mean that every individual demand put forward by a trade union in London can be accepted and, for the reasons that I have outlined above, this is one that cannot be.

We have no desire that LU employees work longer hours unnecessarily. We are seeking the best deal for Londoners and LU employees.

But this strike is damaging to progressive politics in London.

The RMT should accept a deal which is very generous, and more favourable than others that it has signed.

For the last 25 years, I have been proud to be the mouthpiece for the progressive politics in London that have dominated the city every time that Londoners have been given a democratic chance to vote for them.

It is precisely to keep that coalition together, even if it leads to short-term controversy, that I have taken the position that I have on the current dispute on London Underground.

When discussing within the movement – and the Morning Star is a key part of it – I prefer to talk about these issues openly and frankly.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star, 3 July 2004