Page last updated at 08:29 GMT, Thursday, 8 October 2009 09:29 UK

The hardcore union bosses 'fear'

Shunned by the TUC and at odds with New Labour, the RMT union has won lucrative deals with its hardball tactics. The Report's Simon Cox lifts the lid on the union which has more strike ballots in a year than most.

Tube train driver
Tube drivers now earn 40k and have eight weeks annual holiday

When Tim O'Toole first had to deal with the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT), he thought he had stepped back into the 1970s.

"At times, I did feel like I was inserted into an episode of Life on Mars. They would want to discuss socialism and worker solidarity. I just thought, hang on, we have a simple problem to deal with here," says the former managing director of London Underground.

Some minor agreement would be made into the big issue of the day, he says. "You could see Scargill coming down the tunnel - it was ridiculous."

The RMT has a reputation for hard-left politics and playing hardball with management.

Union officials come to the table already armed with a successful strike ballot hanging over management's head.

Record ballots

Mr O'Toole sees this as bully-boy tactics. He says the London Underground and the rail network cannot afford a strike.

Even the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said in 2007 the RMT executive behaved more like a "protection racket than a proper industrial union".

General Secretary Bob Crow makes no apologies for this approach.

"A lot of these companies don't take you seriously until you have a ballot and it concentrates their minds," he says.

BBC Radio 4, Thursday 8 October at 2000 BST
Or download the podcast.

He adds: "We only ballot for two reasons - if a company imposes worse conditions on our members or if they refuse to negotiate.

"If we do that, we have to ballot. We have won a lot more deals through balloting than not balloting."

Few, if any, unions have had as many strike ballots in the UK this year and Mr Crow wears this fact with pride.

"We've had 100 so far. It's a record and it's only September.

"We believe it's a demand of the membership. We don't automatically say there will be a ballot if our members want one, but if our shop stewards say they want to ballot, the Executive Committee normally grant it.

"Up until the recession, we'd won every single ballot. This year we've won 92 to 93 of them out of 100 we've had, not a bad record. We settle two-thirds of them before going to strike."

Mr Crow adds: "The reason why it's perceived as so many ballots now is that before we just had the RMT negotiation with the railway board - now we have 200 companies in the railways."

Bob Crow
It is a human right to go on strike
Bob Crow, General Secretary, RMT

RMT members are not complaining. A tube train driver earns more than £40,000 a year and station staff up to £29,000 for a 35-hour week, with the drivers allowed eight weeks' holiday and station staff getting 10.5 weeks off.

Ralph Darlington, professor of employment relations at Salford University, says the union's confrontational style can be traced back to rail privatisation.

"I think we could characterise the RMT as one of the most militant and left-wing unions in Britain. The politicisation has come about in the face of the challenges which they feel they have faced."

Privatisation exploited

Prof Darlington says in the 1990s, an internal left-wing group disillusioned with the leadership of Jimmy Knapp wanted to be more aggressive if the union was to survive and the election of Bob Crow was influenced by this group's activities.

Ideologically, Mr Crow was opposed to privatisation, but in practice it has helped him secure very good deals for his members.

"The problem is that the rail industry has been fragmented and split up between these different train operating companies (TOCs)," explains rail analyst Christian Wolmar.

Commuters trying to board a Tube train at Clapham Common station
The RMT has called 100 strike ballots this year

"It's been very easy for the unions to exploit that, so they get some deal with a weak TOC and use that to say to others, 'Hey, if you don't do this we're going to go on strike.'"

Mr Crow puts it another way: "We've used the break up of the industry to leapfrog other people. We go to the most sympathetic company and then to the others saying, 'If it's good enough for them, what about you?'"

If the Conservatives come to power, there is talk that they will try to instigate no-strike agreements for services such as the London Underground. But they will find the RMT at the vanguard of moves opposing this.

Olympics battle

"We would never sign one. It is a human right to go on strike," said Mr Crow.

But while the Tories are yet to finalise their plans, a more tangible fight is on the horizon over the next two years.

The nightmare scenario for London is that the RMT could hold Tube bosses to ransom over the 2012 Olympics, as its pay deal with London Underground runs out in 2011.

The union says the Olympics will be like New Year's Eve every day and their staff need a bonus, but the management say it will be no busier than usual.

It sounds like a looming fight which will entail lots of sabre-rattling, tough talk and, of course, more strike ballots.

The Report is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 8 October at 2000 BST. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer after broadcast or download the podcast.

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