Bob Crow made a complete prat of himself on Radio 4 this morning. Responding to Network Rail’s successful challenge to his union’s proposed strike he somehow managed, with a bizarre combination of obfuscation and aggression, to completely fail to get his point across.
The RMT messed up by not having an up-to-date list of employees eligible to vote and their current workplaces. I have some sympathy with the union because, as anyone who has worked in a large multi-site organisation will know, trying to keep track of employees’ grades and job locations is an administrative nightmare. A snapshot taken from a computer system on one day will almost certainly be out of date a couple of weeks later.
The issue of the so-called ghost signal boxes is a red herring too. Some newspapers, and the mini-me bloggers who quote their articles verbatim, have seized upon this story claiming that the RMT balloted signal boxes that no longer exist. Pictures of burnt-out signal boxes make for entertaining articles but the claim that the RMT sent ballot papers to these signal boxes is complete rubbish. Unions don’t ballot workplaces any more. Workplace strike ballots have been illegal for nearly seventeen years. All voting on industrial action is by secret ballot from employees’ home addresses.
It is unlikely that the RMT balloted employees who no longer worked for Network Rail. The company did not accuse the union of doing so and you can be sure that it would have, had their been any suspicion of ex-employees being allowed to vote. The RMT lost the case because it failed to link the employees balloted to their correct workplaces, which it is required to do by law.
Now there is an argument that demanding this level of accuracy in a strike ballot will nearly always lay a union open to legal action and that the increased use of procedural challenges by employers, and increased willingness of the courts to uphold them, presents a challenge to the right to strike. As the Guardian warns in its editorial today:
Bringing the trade unions under the rule of law was one of the great struggles of the 20th century. It is right that strike action requires a ballot before it takes place. Those ballots therefore have to be properly conducted. Yet the practical problems of conducting ballots in industries where workers are not always in the same place are genuine. Perhaps union record-keeping is at fault in some cases. However, if every election or ballot in which there are cases of bad practice was to be invalidated, democracy would soon become a laughing stock, and something worse would replace it. Employers seem increasingly ready to seize on individual cases of bad ballot practice to negate the entire exercise, even when it is clear, as it was in the BA case, that the vote was overwhelming.
The courts need to show some common sense in such cases so that the law retains the respect it needs.
It is a relatively simple point to make but Bob Crow completely failed to make it in this morning’s interview. He did mention postal ballots and that, like most unions, the RMT has its ballots run by the by the Electoral Reform Society but these points were buried in his bluster about job evaluation, grading of signal boxes and matrix systems which would have confused most of the people listening. Realising he was losing the argument, he then very aggressively accused John Humphreys of saying that his union had rigged the ballot. Mr Humphreys said no such thing but the interview then descended into a did-didn’t argument, leaving Mr Crow sounding rather like a petulant child.
If this behaviour is anything like the strategy he employs in his negotiations I pity the poor sods at the rail companies who have to deal with him. Sitting across the table from a man who combines extreme aggression, irrelevant and arcane detail, false accusations and self-righteous indignation must be a nightmare. It’s no wonder that so many of the RMT’s industrial disputes descend into confrontation and industrial action.