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‘Mind the Gap’: Mark Harper and the Powerful Transport Union

As Mark Harper, the UK’s new transport secretary confronts the laundry list of challenges facing him and the country, one of the first orders of the day will be to tackle RMT, or the national transport union, and resolve the rail strikes that have caused chaos across the country over the last few months. But something is amiss and important information has come to light that requires attention.

According to Lars Patrick Berg, a German member of the European Parliament writing in the Global Legal Chronicle, UK transport ministers “have either refused to engage with the RMT or had little time to make any progress.” He quotes Harper who said on Good Morning Britain that he was “very happy” to meet with the unions which he said would be “helpful.”

According to Berg, the road forward is not going to be easy, and he will need to “stand firm” due to the organisation’s “difficult internal politics and skewed interests.”

Berg emphasizes that union leaders “are in constant conflict with their own members” and spend most of their time “acting to preserve their own managerial interests and safeguard the organisation’s public relevance, whilst demonstrably neglecting the organisation’s 40,000 members.”

This is nothing short of shocking and commuters should be horrified to hear this. Naturally, union bosses should be concerned with the welfare of the workers they represent. But something is wrong at RMT.

Berg claims union leaders “seem to focus on improving their self-publicity and media image” instead of doing their jobs and working for the good of the union members.

Even more shocking, is the claim that union leaders did nothing with regard to assisting its workers after P&O Ferries fired union workers earlier this year. RMT appears to not have lifted a finger to help its workers for dubious reasons that point to nothing less than saving their own jobs out of purely narcissistic behaviour.

As Berg notes, union leaders “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.”

Apparently, according to Berg, RMT had a strong legal opinion that its members should take the settlement with P&O – but failed to disclose this information. He quotes John Lansdown, a former P&O employee, who claimed the RMT withheld legal opinions it had about the P&O sackings and which would have helped other employees like himself. RMT knew it would be better for its union members to take the settlement.

Lansdown explained the reason RMT did not disclose this pertinent information is that “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.”

Berg also quotes Steve Hedley who served as Assistant General Secretary of RMT and left ostensibly due to medical retirement, but really because he had a massive disagreement with their strategy and leadership.

Hedley blamed RMT’s irrelevance on leaders’ “incompetence” and claimed that they even “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.”

This is infuriating. RMT is reportedly falling apart thanks to what appears to be an unreliable and narcissistic leadership with little care or concern for its own workers. And without RMT, the workers have no union representation.

Berg notes that Harper “will still have his work cut out to broker an end to this industrial action.”

“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,” he writes. “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.”

Berg calls on the government, and Harper, in particular, to “diffuse industrial disputes in a way that benefits consumers, UK businesses and employees.”

Hopefully, this also means Harper will punish RMT for the mistreatment of its workers. Union workers deserve to have a leadership that actually cares about the people it represents.