Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/786/17650
20 years of privatised train robbery
November marks 20 years since John Major's Tory government gave the go-ahead to splitting up and selling off British Rail.
In this feature, a former MP and councillor Dave Nellist shows why the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition stands for the renationalisation of the railways.
A train driver shows the impact of privatisation upon rail workers but also that trade unions are key to limiting the damage done by privatised rail firms.
The final article shows how Scrooge-like, vicious employers can be forced to change their tune when low-paid workers join a trade union and fight back.
Dave Nellist, Trade Unionist and Socialist coalition national chair
On 5 November it will be exactly 20 years since the Act of Parliament which privatised rail. And that privatisation has been a disaster for passengers and workers alike.
For passengers, privatisation has brought an upward spiral of prices, to probably now the highest in Europe.
In a debate in the House of Commons this summer, MPs heard that a 24-mile commute into Paris costs about £924 a year, into Berlin £700, and into Madrid £654. A similar commute into London, however, costs £3,268 a year!
For workers, the recommendations of the McNulty Report (yet another of those Labour ideas welcomed and accelerated by the Tories) threatening the loss of tens of thousands of frontline workers such as train guards, station and ticket office staff - to make the railways more 'profitable' - hangs over them like the Sword of Damocles.
For the private rail owners, however, privatisation has clearly been a success.
According to one report this summer train operators have been able to manipulate the franchise licensing system so that they effectively pay dividends to shareholders direct from public subsidy.
The report, from Manchester University and others, found "between 1997 and 2012 on the West Coast Mainline Virgin Trains paid out a total of £500 million in dividends and received a direct subsidy of £2.5 billion".
In addition, the report argues, train operating companies have benefited over the last 20 years from a 50% cut in track access charges levied by Network Rail - effectively a further massive indirect state subsidy to private profit.
Not only do the privately owned train companies not pay the real cost of operating the infrastructure, but Network Rail now has an accumulated debt of £30 billion, borrowed privately but publicly guaranteed, continuing to provide those companies with the infrastructure on which to make their profits.
Three party consensus
It's a licence to print money, which has the support of all establishment parties. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), however, unashamedly champions public ownership.
It's part of our core policies - that defines the socialist alternative we offer at elections.
In the current debate about re-privatisation of the East Coast line, New Labour may be relaxed (in opposition) about individual Labour MPs defending the current public ownership of that franchise but they do not extend that logic to renationalisation of the rest of the network. TUSC does.
New Labour's accommodation with big business ideas, such as privatisation and the market, is reinforced by all the political pressure on it being from above and from the right.
TUSC standing candidates widely at election time, strongly campaigning for public ownership, can help redress that debate.
That's one of the reasons two successive RMT transport workers' union conferences have backed their union's full involvement in TUSC.
Travel should be a social right, like education or health. To achieve that needs the public ownership of the transport industry which provides it.
The railways should be renationalised under a new, democratic form of working class control and management, using the experience and expertise of rail workers and passengers to run trains as a public service not, as now, as a big business cash cow.
In the council elections next year TUSC will have the largest number of candidates of any party pledged to public ownership in general, and the re-nationalisation of the rail industry in particular. Our target is 625 candidates: could you be one?
Unions at forefront of defending rail safety
A train driver speaks out
At the time of privatisation the Tories claimed it was the wonder cure for the railways, the best thing since sliced bread.
When the promised improvements failed to materialise - and instead we saw the fatal rail crashes including Southall, Paddington and Hatfield - they conceded that it was a flawed, rushed privatisation. Now it is back to the original claims.
In a speech to the Association of Train Operating Companies, the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin extolled the success of privatisation, citing growing investment, more journeys and better punctuality.
He said nothing about the billions of pounds given in subsidies, the hundreds of millions of pounds leaving the industry in profits for private firms, the hundreds of staff who spend their time not running the railway but shifting the blame for delays to someone else, the decline of train-building capacity, and the franchisees who have given the keys back because they failed to make a big enough profit.
Nor did he mention the massive expansion in the numbers of senior managers and directors who warm their seats for a few years before moving on.
Each senior appointment is announced in glowing terms, 'has years of experience' or 'a record of achievement', until the inevitable and sometimes rather terse message of their departure to 'pursue other interests' or because 'the position failed to suit requirements'.
One head of drivers left after only 12 weeks. No long service award apparently. But they always seem to pop up somewhere else, a magic roundabout for managers while the lower ranks are stuck on the treadmill.
Even in a single speech, McLoughlin cannot be consistent. He claims other countries are following the Tory lead, in creating separate operators for train and track, then lauds Southwest Trains and Network Rail for creating a single management team in a joint venture!
The impact of privatisation has been felt in every aspect of the driver's job. From a single workforce with a standard set of pay and conditions, we now have over 30 train companies with varied rates of pay and terms.
Within companies newly qualified drivers do not get the full rate for the job for one or two years, meaning they do the worst work for the lowest pay.
Between companies there is competition for drivers, benefitting our pay but costing the industry as a whole more.
Passenger train drivers can work ten hour shifts, freight drivers eleven hours. Four hours driving without the chance to go to the loo are the norm.
We are specified 12-hours rest between shifts, but rail workers often no longer live near their depot so travel to and from work can cut this.
There is no doubt drivers are more productive, but as a result we get messed about with. We can see our start time for work varied by hours if we are 'spare'. So you can start a week on an early shift and be moved later in the week.
In 2012, a person working for Devon and Cornwall Railways drove a freight train past a red signal at Stafford. The matter would not even have been investigated without repeated requests.
What was found? The person was: "a senior manager at Amtrain, on a zero-hours contract... who was not conversant with the traction... [was on] a route card he had never been tested on... [and] did not realise he was doing 100mph." Drivers have been threatened with the sack or demotion for far less.
Yes our members deserve a decent standard of living, but we also seek to protect ourselves and the public from cowboy operators whose only aim is profit.
The rail trade unions are at the forefront of defending proper safety standards and exposing the failures of privatisation.
Keep East Coast public!
Despite giving £208 million back to the public purse in one year alone, the Con-Dem government are determined to get the East Coast mainline re-privatised. Why invest profits back in public infrastructure when it can go to hedge funds instead?
East Coast went into public hands in 2009 after National Express gave up the line as it cost too much to run.
One of the bidders for the 2015 line giveaway is channel tunnel operator Eurostar, which has said it will bring back third class seats!
Ironically, while Eurostar operates as a private business, 55% of the company belongs to French publicly-owned railway SNCF, 40% to the British Department of Transport, and the other 5% to the Belgian state railway. So determined are the Tories to show the success of the market, it seems they'd rather have a fake privatisation than none at all!
However the public aren't buying it. Like with Royal Mail, polls consistently show that a minimum of 70% want the rail network to be in public hands.
London RMT: Vote John Reid for council of executives
Socialist Party member John Reid, currently London regional secretary of the transport union RMT, is standing for election to the union's executive.
John says: "I will fight alongside members to defend jobs, conditions and pensions and to ensure all our members in every grade are treated equally whether they be a supervisor or a cleaner or whether they are station staff or train staff."
See John's leaflet at votejohnreid4rmtexec.wordpress.com
Tyne and Wear Metro cleaners
Strike action gets results!
At the start of October, Churchill cleaners working on Tyne and Wear Metro won an important victory in their long running battle for decent wages and conditions.
The problems faced by these workers have their roots in privatisation. Disgracefully, it was local Labour councils who privatised the Metro system and handed over the operation to DB Regio (German state owned railway), who in turn subcontracted cleaning to 'privateer rubbish company' Churchill.
The harsh reality of privatisation and contracting out quickly reared its ugly head. This group of workers was expected to work on minimum wage, with no sick pay, no pension scheme, and unlike other Metro workers, no staff travel concession.
A cleaner who complained that his shift had been understaffed was fired for supposedly bringing the company's name into disrepute. At one stage Churchill even had the gall to describe a 0% pay offer as generous!
While the pay and conditions of Churchill cleaners were being battered, Churchill's profits doubled over five years, making nearly £7 million from the exploitation of its workforce. Something had to be done.
RMT transport workers' union relief regional organiser and Northern TUC executive RMT rep Craig Johnston tells the story of this historic victory.
About two years ago, Churchill decided to save more money to boost its profits. On the minimum wage, the only way the company could squeeze them further was to scrap paid meal breaks.
Only a few of the 60 or so cleaners were RMT members. At the time I was a newly elected relief organiser for the north east.
Churchill started one-to-one consultations. Union members were entitled to be accompanied by a rep - so I attended.
The arrogance of the company was unbelievable. When I asked a question I was told we weren't there to negotiate, the company didn't recognise trade unions.
They were a minimum wage, statutory sick pay employer and the contract needed to save money. I wasn't even given a chair at one meeting.
It was the start of a two-year campaign to force the company to respect their employees and treat them better. Just over a fortnight ago we achieved much of what we set out to achieve.
From the first report I sent to the RMT executive the union gave the cleaners solid support, including from general secretary Bob Crow.
Thanks to a small team of committed activists led by Stuart Roberts, within weeks the overwhelming majority of cleaners were in the union.
Churchill scrapped the plan to remove paid meal breaks and we applied for statutory recognition. In response the company wrote to staff asking, as they were so low paid, could they really afford to pay the £1 nominal membership fee the RMT executive had agreed for them!
The company's anti-union scaremongering backfired in a spectacular way. We soon had the membership to force formal recognition so obtained a voluntary recognition agreement.
By now improvised union notice boards were appearing in the cleaners' mess rooms. Workers were wearing union badges, baseball caps and union ties.
The confidence of workers was increasing. Effective representation at disciplinary hearings could mean the difference between keeping your job and losing it.
Reps were elected from and by the workforce. Stuart Roberts was elected Senior Rep. The RMT's education centre at Doncaster provided rep training.
The next thing was to submit a substantial pay claim. The company offered no real improvement. Members voted 100% for strike action.
Day strikes turned into two-day, a week and then two weeks - 33 days in total, over an 18-month period.
The overwhelming majority held firm. The union helped with hardship payments. Women in their 70s - who had never before been in a union and worked to supplement their pension - stood alongside lads and lasses in their late teens and early 20s on picket lines and protests.
The cleaners attended the Newcastle May Day March and Durham Miners Gala and various protests against council cuts, fighting broader battles as well as their own personal fight.
We received great solidarity. The Northern TUC, PCS, Unison, GMB, FBU, bakers' union, CWU and UCU all headed for the picket lines to pledge support.
Innovative campaigning included striking cleaners going onto the Metro with songs and music.
We wanted not only to heap pressure on poverty paying Churchill, but also Nexus, the Labour-controlled transport authority responsible for outsourcing. Nexus had offered the cleaners to-and-from work transport passes, but only if they didn't strike!
Councillors on the authority were sent empty 2012 Christmas hampers to represent the scrooge employers. Improvised soup kitchens were set up outside Nexus headquarters and meetings.
The Tyne and Wear passengers group also gave support. Some local Labour MPs were supportive, but others did nothing at all.
But it was the sheer determination of the workers and the RMT that resulted in victory. They won an employment tribunal decision with the union's solicitors that meant time-and-a-half for Sunday working, and double-time and compensation leave for bank holidays.
After the two-week strike, the company invited the union back for talks - the settlement a staggering 20% over four years (with accumulation it's actually more) and a clear road map to get more than a living wage.
The message is clear: get organised, get in a union, stay strong and united - then win.
Craig has also thanked the Socialist Party for the support given to the Metro cleaners' dispute
In The Socialist 30 October 2013:
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party NHS campaigning
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