Challenges for Harper as he prepares to take on the RMT

New Transport Minister Mark Harper faces a daunting inbox of challenges as he settles into his new role


New Transport Minister Mark Harper faces a daunting inbox of challenges as he settles into his new role: getting to grips with a sector that is so vital yet generates a quarter of our GHG emissions, and managing ageing and decrepit transport infrastructure as well as massive new projects such as HS2.  Probably of most urgency will be to get a grip on the Railway & Transport Union (RMT) and resolve the rail strikes that have caused such misery to commuters this summer and are set to continue.

Transport Ministers, and there have been a few recently, have either refused to engage with the RMT or had little time to make any progress.  Harper said on Good Morning Britain that he was “very happy”  to meet with the Unions which he said would be “helpful”.  Whilst we wish him every success, as RMT once again holds the country to ransom, he’s going to need stand firm – their recent behaviour highlights the organisation’s difficult internal politics and skewed interests.

RMT Union Leaders are in constant conflict with their own members  

The leadership at RMT spends most effort acting to preserve their own managerial interests and safeguard the organisation’s public relevance, whilst demonstrably neglecting the organisation’s 40,000 members who are rightfully demanding wage increases to match inflation and the rising cost of living.  In their effort to maintain their own positions at the top of the union, including their lavish salaries, RMT’s publicity-seeking leaders seem to focus on improving their self-publicity and media image, see #HIGNFY, and building hard left policy narratives instead of spending time working on benefits for the workers.

RMT shirks responsibility

The current rail walkouts are similar in nature to the recent fury over P&O Ferries’ firing of union workers.  John Lansdown, an ex-P&0 Ferries sous-chef and the only seafarer to take legal action after the sackings, publicly criticized the RMT and former RMT National Secretary Darren Procter for their lack of interest in assisting him and, worse, moreover, for being politically motivated in their actions against P&O. He also implied that the RMT collects union dues even as they neglected their members’ needs.

RMT rejected all solutions put forward by P&O, explicitly encouraging them to decline the compensation packages on offer, but refusing to provide its members with any legal advice or context with which to support their decisions. Pity those members who put their trust in their union. Lansdown had to look for his own financing to get a legal opinion to support his claim against P&O. Fast forward several months, and it came to light that the RMT had not only sought but then sat on a well-supported legal opinion that its members should in fact take the settlement – vital information that the union had failed to disclose those who trusted it, causing them unnecessary and often painful uncertainties.   “The RMT union are more about scoring political points,” he charged. “They’ve become a self-righteous protest group.”

During an interview Lansdown cited an example of a friend who worked for DFDS and requested assistance from RMT after she realized her pay check was less than the national minimum wage. When RMT told her the best way forward was to challenge it legally, she decided to take them at their word and waited for them to challenge it through legal means. She continued to ask for updates but was just ignored. Fed up, she cut her losses and cancelled her membership.  Lansdown also explained that when Irish Ferries (who re-flagged their fleet to foreign ports in order to avoid paying the UK minimum wage in 2000) were securing a foothold at Dover, the RMT promised to launch a campaign against the company, but did nothing. This was the biggest threat to UK sea ferries’ jobs, however nothing happened.  “It was clear that it was all talk and no action from the union,” Lansdown said, “they’ve let everyone down”. Moreover, in the recent P&O crisis, the RMT has made significant effort to withhold from its members any legal opinions it had about the P&O sacking. As came to light, that opinion was that its members should take the settlement. Lansdown explained  “Reason being, it was against the union’s interests to ask solicitors to say to people like me that this is a good offer or a bad offer. [Since] They just wanted them not to accept the offer.”

RMT leaders don’t care about members’ interests

Steve Hedley served as Assistant General Secretary of RMT from August 2012 until March 2022 when he left, despite his second five-year term ending only in August. Ostensibly, he said in an interview, it was because of medical retirement. But the real reason was that he had massive disagreements with their strategy and tactics of the leadership.

Hedley claimed that the RMT fears becoming irrelevant and knew it had very little bargaining power against the offer P&O made to its employees. RMT’s downward slide, he said, is a result of the leaders’ incompetence and bad behaviour.  He goes on to claim that RMT leaders refuse to go to court or stand up for their members in order to avoid any threat to their well-paid jobs and nice lifestyle. Because of this uncaring attitude, Hedley views the RMT leadership’s actions as completely non-aligned with its members’ interests. “They don’t see the big picture,” he added. In addition, the RMT leadership uses isolation strategies to get rid of critical voices in their own ranks. He described what happened after one employee was dismissed and set up a picket line outside the office.

“He then set up a picket line to protest his compulsory redundancy. He asked people not to cross the picket line. And in the end, I was the only person in the whole building that refused to cross the picket line.”  If the RMT cannot even support a one man strike on its own soil, this is not a union able to serve the interests of its members. Clinging to their cosy jobs at the expense of their members – the workers – RMT’s leaders have brought nothing but discredit upon themselves.

Whilst RMT tears itself apart, Harper will still have his work cut out to broker an end to this industrial action. The more important issue for the government is that our the public sector is deeply unhappy. This discontent has been building for some time: high inflation coupled with the cost of living crisis, combined with wage freezes in the public sector and high demand for professionals and skilled workers in the private sector, have damaged morale in the public sector. The challenge for the unions has been to try to protect their workers’ pay and conditions, offering members a plethora of new services, yet the working environment has evolved away from traditional work contracts towards a more dynamic individual-based approach that large lumbering state organisations struggle to keep up with.  This is particularly true in the transport sector which requires constant innovation and modernisation to remain solvent; with the looming threat to the workforce of being replaced by technology.

The public sector remains more prone today to labour disputes and Union difficulties than the private sector and has more trouble in generating good employee relations.  The government needs a coherent strategy to lift the public sector’s achievement as an employer, whilst pushing through agreed changes to working practices that boost quality and output to reflect the support and investment provided. At the same time, the more strident union members need to fear that the government can act decisively, whilst the overwhelming moderate majority needs to believe that the government wants to improve the public sector’s performance as an employer and is prepared to listen to good ideas. Ultimately it is the pivotal role of good government to diffuse industrial disputes in a way that benefits consumers, UK businesses and employees. Such an approach is long overdue.

By Lars Patrick Berg

10th November 2022