Thursday, 22 August 2013

RMT Joins up with North Korea

Regular readers will know that I'm a Wobbly so I'm not really too surprised when I hear of some bad news concerning the mainstream Trade Unions but this particular development is kind of hard to swallow. It seems the Rail and Maritime Transport union (RMT) arguably Britain's most militant mainstream trade union and one I personally quite admire has found some new rather dodgy friends.

From Workers Liberty

Why link with North Korean “unions”?

Luke Taverner 
The Council of Executives of the RMT, at its June 2013 meeting, decided to affiliate to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU).
The WFTU traces its history back to the end of the Second World War, when an attempt was made to revive the old trade union international. Soon, opposition to the Marshall Plan by unions in the Stalinist bloc, and the anti-Communism of many Western unions, made the organisation untenable. Most big union centres outside the Stalinist world left, and set up what is now the ITUC.
The WFTU continued as an organisation of state labour fronts and unions historically linked to or led by their national Communist Parties (like the French CGT) around the world. Its biggest remaining affiliates include the Vietnamese General Confederation of Labour, the Cuban CTC, and the General Federation of Trade Unions in North Korea. These are not unions in any meaningful sense, but the state-run labour fronts of totalitarian regimes, often used to police and repress working-class self-organisation and dissent.

Recently the WFTU has experienced a slight revival, in part by placing itself to the left of the ITUC, which it criticises for being in favour of social partnership. The WFTU has rebranded itself as “class-based” and “democratic.” Some unions in South Africa have affiliated to it and are pushing COSATU to do so.

The RMT say they will “seek to facilitate a meeting between the ITF (International Transport Workers Federation) General Secretary Steve Cotton and the transport section of the WFTU.”
But the move may also be shaped by people in the RMT who have some sympathy for the sorts of regimes for which the WFTU provides cover.

Regardless of the motive, the sad fact is that the leadership of a militant industrial union in Britain seems to have no problem aligning themselves with an organisation which includes within it representatives of some of the most repressive, anti-worker regimes in the world.

Not exactly good news. As the above article has stated the RMT has joined the WFTU the international created during the Cold War to Unite the official Union organisations of the Soviet sphere which too this day unites the front organisations of Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea.

 Though I personally think the focus on North Korea in the above article was somewhat misleading. I've personally met Bob Crow the General Secretary of the RMT on several occasions and think the decision to join the WFTU to be based on two other motives. First I think this is part of his (and the RMT's) attempts to build a new support network after the RMT broke with Labour Party and thus caused a rift between it and the other major Unions in the TUC. The RMT is a backer of several projects to build a "New Workers Party" such as No2EU Yes to Democracy and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition or TUSC so far neither project has borne much fruit.

The RMT is also a major supporter of the Morning Star the paper run by the Communist Party of Britain and alternates between calling for a new Workers party, supporting Labour's Left wing and just campaigning for the CPB's handful of candidates. Bob Crow in his personal capacity also worked with the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) a group largely set up by the Socialist Party (Trotskyist) and pursues merging with the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) another Transport Union.

In addition to building electoral fronts and Union mergers another incentive for the RMT to join the WFTU does relate to one of the big Cold War backers of the WFTU, but it isn't North Korea, its Cuba. I met Bob Crow at Cuban solidarity events held at the RMT headquarters in London. The man's a passionate supporter of Cuba and most of the RMT leadership seem sympathetic.

 With an opportunity to build links with some large and powerful organisations whom make a big noise about being militantly socialist on the one hand, and building concrete links with a regime the leadership genuinely admire on the other the decision must of seemed obvious to the RMT.

This is pretty much how Bob thinks of Cuba
Now of course even if that is the case it doesn't make this move any less problematic or potentially damaging. Not just for thee RMT but many active organisers and Unions. Bob Crow is definitely the most attacked figure in the British Labour movement, and he's already developed a reputation for being Bolshie and Red, having a direct connection to Castro and even worse the universally hated (minus a small number of lefty Orientalists) North Korean regime and those attacks are only going to get worse.

This is what most regimes in affiliated to the WFTU consider acceptable business practice:

Vietnamese Workers
Refusing to work, or violating any one of a number of center rules, results in beatings or confinement in disciplinary rooms (phong ky luat). Staff beat detainees with wooden truncheons or shock them with electrical batons, sometimes causing them to faint. In disciplinary rooms— either crowded punishment rooms or solitary confinement cells— physical deprivation is used as an additional form of punishment” .. “Asked why he performed such hazardous work, [a detainee] said: If you refused to work they slapped you. If you still refused to work then they sent you to the punishment room. Everyone worked.

North Korean Workers
The cashmere knitwear, labelled "Designed in Scotland", is made by Mongolian firm Eermel, who employ 80 North Korean women in work gangs.
Eermel have admitted paying part of these workers' wages to Kim Jong-il's government - helping to prop up the hardline regime.

Now its very important to remember that Union federations most prominent in the WFTU work very closely with their ruling parties as part of regimes that boast constantly about being dedicated to the Working class at home and abroad. As such the usual explanations of government and business hostility keeping workers organising to at the very least improve conditions simply doesn't apply here.

With friends like these who needs enemies?

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