THE BIG INTERVIEW – RMT assistant general secretary candidate Steve Hedley speaks to the Dreadnaught about industrial action, socialism and the future
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By John Millington
CONFIDENT, straight talking and militant – these are just some of the qualities lay members often look for in their union leaders.
But RMT assistant general secretary candidate Steve Hedley goes further and insists that being “political” is key to being a good union leader.
Inspired by Irish revolutionary James Connolly and former miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, Mr Hedley is not afraid to appear controversial.
“It goes with the territory, when you are representing members,” he tells the Dreadnaught.
I ask him if he thinks the RMT could improve its media image given that it is subject to the strongest criticism from the mass media, ranging from vicious scrutiny of strike action on the tube to personalised attacks against the union’s leader Bob Crow.
His response is as stark as it is amusing.
“It wouldn’t matter if we had mother Teresa of Calcutta leading the union. As soon we would called industrial action she would be vilified as a communist.”
His support and personal respect for Bob Crow is unswerving and he suggests the media really hate the RMT leader because he makes them look foolish when challenged.
“The media hates our current general secretary because he is a working class man, much cleverer than they are and defeats them in every argument,” he points out.
For Hedley the world that trades unionists exist in today is one of sharp conflicts between bosses and workers within in the context of an economic system that is unsustainable.
And no where is this conflict more robustly expressed than on Britain’s transport network.
The McNulty report which unions claim will cost 20,000 jobs on the railway whilst increasing fragmentation, prices and privatisation of the network, is something transport unions must focus on defeating, Hedley insists.
Although he is praising of the union’s industrial character, he does think it can be improved tactically.
“The union is losing its way. We don’t have a viable strategy with regard to McNulty report,” he says.
“In order to defeat McNulty, we need to have a coordinated strategy across all the companies.”
Despite the strict anti trade union laws on balloting, Hedley believes timing ballots to run co-currently wouldn’t lead to a breach in the law.
But he is also clear that in the long run, trade unionists must be prepared to break the “unjust” labour laws in Britain if they are not repealed in parliament.
“At the end of the day – if we have to break the anti trade union laws so be it,” he says.
“Trades unionists have had a long tradition of fighting unjust laws.”
The consequences of not putting up a robust defence of the transport network for both members and the public, says Hedley would be disastrous.
“If we don’t fight the industry we will be unrecognisable in 5 years.”
“We will be haemorrhaging members. If we don’t stop them, we will lose 30,000 or 40,000 members and this would damage the trade union movement.”
But how do other unions fit into this fight?
Hedley is careful not to burn bridges with other unions but is clearly frustrated by lack of support for some RMT industrial initiatives.
“We would hope they would join with us,” he says.
“It is in every ones interest.”
“Unfortunately we don’t always get the response we desire.”
“We are an industrial union – we want to protect everyones job.”
With mergers and moves towards “super unions” which cover multiple industries, being embarked upon, the RMT stands out as a voice for industrial trade unionism.
This method of organising, where all grades in a job or an industry are covered by one union, Hedley says, means more effective representation for workers and greater democratic accountability.
“Big unions? The bigger the union – the harder it is to organise,” he says.
“When it gets massively big democracy is affected. Rank and file influence is minimised and the big union can become top heavy.”
“If you look at Unite it doesn’t have any identity. It is not an industrial union any more.”
Politically Hedley describes himself as a “socialist” and has stood in elections for the electoral platform TUSC.
One thing is for certain, he is no fan of the Labour Party.
“We need representation for workers at the political level. They are disenfranchised,” he insists.
“The Labour party have adopted neo-liberal polices. We should be trying to build socialist alternative to Labour due to it’s bourgeois leadership.”
Many trade unionists over the years have passed through the revolving door of the labour movement with principles similar to Hedley but have soon ditched them in favour of lucrative careers in the Commons, the House of Lords or even in big business.
“It is always a danger,” Hedley admits.
However by pledging to donate the 24,000 increase in pay from his current London Regional organiser salary to the RMT disputes fund, Hedley hopes this among other things will keep him “in touch with ordinary workers.”
And true to form, Hedley remains optimistic about the prospects for change during his lifetime.
“Lenin once said that he would never see socialism in his life time. We never know what will happen,” he says with a smile.
“What we can’t do is passably wait for socialism to fall from the skies. We have to fight the small battles and the big battles.”
“One thing is for certain, I’ll be working really hard to see socialism in my lifetime.”