Socialist Party members in the RMT
In two weeks’ of consultation at the start of February, RMT rail union members resoundingly rejected the pay ‘offers’ and attacks on working conditions from both Network Rail and the Train Operating Companies (TOCs). This strong message from the members followed a thumping vote for continued action in the reballot required by Tory anti-union legislation.
Undoubtedly, the employers, with the Tory government behind them, were taken aback by the determination of rail workers to fight for decent pay and against a ‘modernisation’ programme that would tear up working conditions hard-won over decades.
In the face of this intransigence they are now seeking ways to separate out different groups of rail workers in the hope of fragmenting the dispute. It is therefore vital, not only that the RMT continues and escalates the fight, but that there is democratic discussion and coordination among the reps and members of the union across the different grades and employers, and coordination between rail unions.
Network Rail – reject the offer
The RMT action on Network Rail planned for 16 March has been suspended. The offer from Network Rail is now going out to members in a referendum but without recommendation from the leadership.
We say the offer should be rejected and the union must fight on.
The offer on pay is slightly improved, with an additional 1.1%, and it is now backdated to October 2022. But despite headline reports of “an uplift on salaries of between 14.4% for the lowest paid grades to 9.2% for the highest paid”, and “a total uplift on basic earnings of 15.2% for the lowest paid grades”, this is, in fact, a two-year pay offer. Given that in the year 2022-23 RPI inflation has been running higher than 14%, in reality this pay offer is actually half of that, and so is still a substantial pay cut. Clearly, this isn’t a big enough improvement on previous offers to warrant a new referendum.
Even more significantly, it has now been made clear that for the price of a few months’ extra back-pay, “acceptance of the offer will mean a settlement of all aspects of the dispute and that no further strike action can be taken, including in respect of ‘Modernising Maintenance’.”
So the huge changes to working conditions would be imposed.
Why wasn’t there consultation with the wider membership, or at least the Route Council representatives, before making the rushed decision to put this offer out to the membership?
Where were the mass meetings of reps? Where have the mass rallies of members in the regions taken place? Surely the voices of the members should have been listened to before making such an important decision?
What happened to the mass postcard and media campaigns that were promised to alert the public of the dangers of the company’s plans on ‘Modernising Maintenance’?
Train Operating Companies
The TOCs also offered talks to the RMT about what they describe as an improved offer, but made suspending the strike action planned for 16 and 18 March a pre-condition.
Most members will remember what happened late last year when the same proposal came from the employers making vague promises on condition that we suspend our strikes: they took the mickey out of us and were just wasting our time.
We can’t make that mistake again. The NEC was right to press ahead with the action.
RMT members understand that the employers have belligerently threatened to stop dealing with the RMT as one group (the Rail Delivery Group – RDG), due to the ‘impasse’, and that the union will now have to negotiate separately with each employer. The impasse being that workers refuse to roll over in the face of historic attacks on their terms and conditions. The danger of reverting to negotiations at each individual TOC is that the TOC managements will undoubtedly try to play ‘divide and conquer’, by pressing ahead with their attacks on certain grades, e.g. by closing the ticket offices, before moving on to guards and others. But with a determined lead they can still be defeated.
Lay member control
It is now vital that meetings of reps and members take place to debate and plan the next action necessary. The fight will be stronger the more unified it is across different grades and companies. But the different TOCs will all have different pressure points as well – different expiry dates for the franchises, and – notwithstanding the new national rail contracts that guarantee a certain level of income from the government – different balance sheets and so on. A determined fight can mean it is the bosses who fragment.
That should include discussion between rail unions too. The RMT executive should propose to meet jointly with the Aslef drivers’ union executive, to fight to ensure all the industrial strength is used to maximum effect. But Aslef members should be invited to be part of the discussion at every level, which will aid the pressure on their leaders.
The bosses’ attempts to pressure and divide the rail workforce has included using the fact that the TSSA union, which organises, amongst others, administrative and station workers, accepted a pay offer after putting it out to referendum. The bosses have used this to put pressure on RMT. But many TSSA members will want to act in solidarity and should be brought into the discussion where possible, to put pressure on their leaders to continue the broad campaign to preserve a safe railway network with well-paid staff. The terrible events in Greece show what happens if trade unions are weakened, with unchecked, rampant privatisation on the railways.
And that also means coordination on a wider scale, with all other unions in dispute. The national strike wave which was begun with the rail unions last summer has new waves of workers joining – not least, 45,000 junior doctors now joining the hundreds of thousands of public sector workers striking this spring. All these disputes have the divided and crisis-ridden Tory government behind them – either directly, or backing vicious private sector bosses. Governmental action – by the Tories, or clear commitments to immediate action by an incoming Starmer-led government – would end these disputes, in this case by ensuring inflation-proof pay rises and committing to renationalise the railways.