Transport and travel unions discuss merger

In August 2011, the major transport and travel industry unions, RMT and TSSA, announced talks over a possible merger. This could lead to a union with around 105,000 members, representing most grades of staff at train operating companies, the Network Rail infrastructure provider and London Underground. There have been no major union mergers in the UK for several years. TSSA and RMT have increasingly campaigned together on pay, pensions and jobs and cuts in transport spending.

Merger talks start

The National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) has some 77,000 members, working in the railway sector, the shipping and offshore industries, and bus and road-freight transport. The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) represents around 28,000 administrative, managerial, professional and technical workers in the railway sector, travel trade, ports and ferries.

On 12 August 2011, senior officials of RMT and TSSA met to discuss the possibilities of a merged union. They agreed to hold a series of meetings to examine key issues and objectives ‘recognising that both unions have separate rule books and traditions’. The unions stated jointly that they will use their democratic structures to consult and agree with members on the merger talks, and that they ‘wish to conclude these discussions as soon as possible, as industrial attacks are taking place more intensely on transport and travel workers’.

Merged union ‘an absolute necessity’

A TSSA-RMT merger would create a union with around 105,000 members, which would represent most grades of staff at train operating companies, the Network Rail infrastructure provider and London Underground, with the exception of those train drivers who are members of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) (UK0710039Q).

The RMT General Secretary, Bob Crow, argued that a merged union would improve the collective strength of members in defending their pay, pensions and jobs, and opposing cuts in transport spending. TSSA and RMT have increasingly campaigned together on such issues in recent years and pressures are likely to increase in future, especially in the light of the government-commissioned ‘McNulty review’, the conclusions of which were published in the Final Independent Report of the Rail Value for Money Study (3Mb PDF). This report, issued in May 2011, calls for reforms of working practices and pay restraint.

Gerry Doherty, TSSA General Secretary, said:

I firmly believe that a new trade union forged out of the very best parts of our two existing unions is an absolute necessity for workers in the transport and travel sectors, to ensure that the interests of those workers are best protected and advanced in the very difficult industrial and political circumstances prevailing now and unfortunately into the future.

He expressed a hope that the talks would reach a successful conclusion in 2012.

Doherty acknowledged that the talks were unlikely to be easy. One possible stumbling block is the traditionally differing views on industrial action of the ‘moderate’ TSSA and ‘militant’ RMT. However, the importance of this distinction may be declining: in 2010, the two unions took the unusual step of calling joint strikes on London Underground (UK1012019I).

Long-term merger trend

UK trade unions have undergone a long-term process of merger and consolidation – through amalgamations to form new unions, and through transfers of engagements, whereby a smaller union joins a larger one and ceases independent existence. This process has been a key factor in a reduction of the number of unions recorded by the Certification Officer (CO), the official body which oversees a range of matters relating to trade unions and employer associations, to 177 on 31 March 2011, compared with 502 in 1983. The long-term union merger trend, which intensified in the 1990s and early 2000s (UK0410105F), has been closely linked with falling total union membership, which declined from 11.3 million in 1983 to 7.3 million in 2010, according to CO data.

The degree of consolidation of UK unions is illustrated by the fact that, according to the CO’s 2010–2011 annual report (262Kb PDF), in 2010 the 14 largest unions (those with over 100,000 members) together represented over 85% of total membership. Indeed, two ‘super-unions’, the largely private sector manufacturing and services Unite and the public services Unison, represented 40% of all union members.

However, since the formation of Unite in 2007 (UK0706039I), there has been little significant merger activity. Between 2008–2011, the CO recorded only 10 transfers of engagements by relatively small unions, with a total of around 32,000 members. The outcome of the talks between RMT and TSSA may indicate whether there is significant scope for further mergers, or if the consolidation process has stalled for the present. Bob Crow of RMT has stated that there would be benefits if some smaller transport unions, such as the 19,000-strong ASLEF, Nautilus International (17,000 maritime professionals) and the United Road Transport Union (URTU) (13,000 lorry drivers) could join with his union and TSSA.

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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