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“I GUESS I don’t know how it happened really,” Michelle Rodgers smiles. “You just put your head above the parapet and move forward. That was that really: there was me, knee-deep in trade unionism.”
But Rodgers, who was elected the first female president of rail union RMT earlier this year, could have ended up somewhere very different.
After leaving school, she initially trained as a chef — before having a motorbike accident, and ending up taking a job on the railways in 1989.
She’s speaking to the Star at the Scottish TUC’s annual congress in Dundee. And it was in Scotland where the railways left their mark on Rodgers, who is from and still lives in north-west England.
The solidarity she felt as a cleaner based at Craigentinny, near Edinburgh, she explains, was unlike anything else.
“I was there was for about 18 months, but it was my best 18 months on the railway — because cleaners have such a bond. You had very old people — in their late fifties, early sixties [as well as younger workers]. It was called heavy cleaning … the camaraderie, amongst everybody [would] get you through a shift.”
Later on, in the early 1990s, Rodgers got her first taste of prolonged industrial action in the case that became known as the Piccadilly 4.
Now working back in Manchester, she downed tools in solidarity with four local reps who refused to agree to a new roster.
“Guards and trainwomen and men were leaving trains across the network,” she recalls. “I left mine at Oxford Road [station in Manchester] and walked back to Piccadilly. This unofficial action lasted for three-and-a-half weeks before the union proceeded to a ballot.
“For me, that was a straightforward right or wrong.
“If you’re in a depot there’s massive solidarity there,” Rodgers continues. “Station grades, unfortunately, it’s harder to pull everyone together.”
Only after this did Rodgers’s activity in her union branch take off, and before long she was “branch chair for umpteen years.”
When the RMT introduced the new role of “lead recruiters” she took on that role, before becoming branch secretary.
“Four years ago I put myself forward to the NEC,” she says. “Over the last 10 years I think I’ve got more political than I’ve ever been.
“The one thing I always knew was the Conservative Party was never a party of the working class.”
The RMT has a unique system of governance among Britain’s TUC-affiliated unions, in which executive members are elected to a full-time union post for a three-year term.
Afterwards, they cannot seek re-election, and must return to their old job.
“When I left the NEC and went back into my own workplace, the number of people who said: ‘You should stand, you should stand, you should stand’,” Rodgers says, when I broach the topic of how she came to stand for the top lay position.
She had in fact stood for the union presidency in 2006, coming third out of five candidates — the other four being men.
Rodgers says the RMT’s structure, and her previous experience on the NEC, was good training for the presidency.
“Watching NEC members, some of the debates we have in the boardrooms as NEC members, they sometimes challenge your view and that’s helpful too.
“When you finish the term of office you go back into the workplace and you’re responsible for every decision you’ve made.”
She also credits the union’s organising success — including recent breakthroughs over driver-only operation and growing membership — to the fact that officials are drawn from the rank and file.
Bob Crow, who Rodgers says “enthused everybody — that’s when I got politically involved,” started out making tea on London Transport before becoming a track worker.
The current general secretary, Mick Cash, looked after the signals on the West Coast Main Line. Unlike in many unions, regional organisers and assistant general secretaries are elected positions — filled by rank-and-file members rather than career officials, which Rodgers says has a “massive impact.”
The union’s unique culture, developed by generations of activists and leaders, has helped the RMT maintain job security and collective strength that are the envy of most workforces.
But that’s not to say that the same threats aren’t still hanging over Britain’s railways. Rodgers foresees another round of fragmentation down the line.
She believes it’s time for the trade union movement to step up — in their own structures, as well in workplaces.
“The casualisation now of most industries scares me,” she says. “That’s eating into trade unions. Unions are having more and more sweetheart deals, they compromise, but it doesn’t represent the worker.”
Meanwhile, her own victory has made history. “We’ve shifted something that hasn’t existed in almost 150 years, in having its first female officer,” she says.
“I’m hoping that actually awakens every minority member in our union to say, why is my voice not being heard?
“We’re already doing that, we’re already making changes. We need to encourage more black people and minorities to stand for the NEC.”
And a more representative movement will go hand in hand with a spirit of industrial militancy, she says. “Trade unions have got plenty of compassion, but most of all we’ve got passion to fight for what’s right.”
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