The railway industry and its workforce enter 2023 with uncertain futures. So far rail workers have shown they are prepared to stand and fight for their interests, together with those of the industry…
The rail trade unions have waged an intelligent and astute campaign of industrial action across the industry for over seven months during 2022, and in the dying days of the year there was at least some meaningful progress in negotiations with state-owned infrastructure owner and operator Network Rail.
After weeks of negotiations, Network Rail significantly improved its offer to the unions, so much so that both TSSA and Unite members voted to accept the deal on offer. But most union members in the company belong to the RMT, and nearly two-thirds of the RMT’s members who voted in a referendum, rejected the offer.
Inevitably, the media, employers and government used this apparent division in the ranks of Network Rail’s unions to accuse the RMT of being unreasonable given that two other unions have ended their disputes with the company.
Bizarrely, ministers castigated the RMT for not putting the deal to its members when other unions had done so. Days earlier, the same ministers implied that the RMT’s referendum result meant that support for industrial action was waning, and pointedly ignored the thumping majority voting for strikes in a ballot of the RMT’s Network Rail members only days before.
That ballot was forced upon the union by anti-trade union laws that require mandates for rail strikes to be renewed after six months. And the government is proposing to make those laws even more onerous (see page 24), by requiring a minimum train service to be run, even though the rail employers think such provisions would be unworkable in practice.
The deal accepted by the TSSA and Unite includes a no-compulsory-redundancy agreement until 31 January 2025 and a minimum pay increase of at least £1,750 or 5 per cent (whichever is greater) backdated to 1 January 2022 (a rise of over 5 per cent for anyone earning less than £35,000). That makes the rise worth at least 7 per cent to staff earning £25,000 or less.
There will also be another 4 per cent pay increase from 1 January 2023, as well as no unagreed changes to terms and conditions of employment, and a significant improvement in staff rail travel provision.
This deal is one that is very much better than that originally tabled to the unions.
So why is the RMT opposed to the deal? Unite represents a very small number of very specialised engineering staff, and the TSSA only covers around 3,500 of the staff covered by the offer, again in particular roles. It had already reached a separate deal for its manager members months ago. In contrast, the RMT covers tens of thousands of staff, for many of whom it has sole bargaining rights.
What works for TSSA and Unite members hasn’t found favour with RMT members. For them the concern is that the deal still gives Network Rail room to cut large numbers of their jobs by axing 50 per cent of maintenance tasks, which they consider will undermine safety. It would also mean that Network Rail will be able to force around a third of them to work more unsocial hours.
Infantile accusations of TSSA and Unite treachery ignore the fact that at the end of the day this is a trade dispute, and each union’s membership must take a view as to whether they can live with a deal on the table. They are under no obligation to carry on a dispute just because the RMT’s members have issues with the offer. And the RMT is big enough to look after itself!
It is vital that the rail unions, including drivers’ union Aslef, maintain unity in dealing with the other side of the current rail industry dispute – the train operating companies that fall under the direct control of the Department for Transport.
Passenger numbers have continued to rise since the Covid pandemic, despite the strikes. Leisure passenger numbers are well above those before Covid. And overall numbers are close to 2019 levels despite fewer commuter and business journeys.
If government was to invest in the industry and its staff, it would have a success story on its hands. This is the approach being taken by many countries across western Europe.
But in Britain, the industry is still suffering from the legacy of a failed franchise system that was imploding under the weight of its own contradictions long before Covid came along, despite ever rising passenger numbers. That is why so many franchises were handed back to the government.
The new arrangements now in place mean that the private operators and the foreign state-owned railway corporations that run many of Britain’s passenger services no longer have to take any cost or revenue risks – their profit margins are built into the new contracts. It’s the taxpayer who bears the risks, though you don’t see that mentioned in the media.
Even now, many fewer passenger trains run compared to pre-pandemic, despite the recovery in numbers. Passengers are complaining about overcrowding like never before.
‘The trade unions have made it clear they will not accept the undermining of jobs or safety…’
Yet the government, which now controls decision-making relating to services, is saying that costs – and therefore very likely, train services – must be cut when the new financial year starts in April.
It is the government demand for cost-cutting that is driving the intransigence of the train operating companies in their dealings with the trade unions. Until recently, the employers were refusing even to talk with the unions. In November, strikes were suspended pending “intensive negotiations” but after several weeks these abruptly hit the buffers.
Progress had been made on issues covering modernisation, staffing, job security and ticket offices, but when the subject turned to pay and grading, the employers said that “we have no mandate from the Department for Transport to discuss this with unions.”
Most rail workers covered by the disputes have had no pay increase for three years, and with inflation now running at over 10 per cent, pay is a key part of the current rail disputes.
Ministers have often used the term “modernisation” as a euphemism for cuts in staffing, and the imposition of inferior rates of pay and conditions of employment. The unions have repeatedly said they are not against modernisation, but they won’t see jobs or safety undermined – hence their opposition to the extension of Driver Only Operation of passenger trains.
A few weeks before the end of the year, train operators had an offer to put to the unions, only for it to be torpedoed at the eleventh hour by government insistence that the extension of Driver Only Operation should be part of any deal (see News, page 3). Because of this, among other issues, all unions have scheduled strikes across passenger services well into 2023.
The TSSA has pointed to the Network Rail deal and contrasted it unfavourably with the lack of progress with the train operators, stating that if a realistic offer is made, there is every chance a deal can be reached. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has also been rather more conciliatory recently, making much the same point. As Workers went to press, the government seemed to be more amenable to direct talks with the unions.
The unions have highlighted the pay deals made with Scotrail and Merseyrail, reached a long time ago, and RMT announced the deal with Transport for Wales just before Christmas where its members had accepted pay rises between 6.6 and 9.5 per cent, but with no strings. The unions contrasted these deals with the refusal of the Department for Transport to authorise similar deals for the train operators that fall under its control.
Workers in the rail industry have got to this point because they have been prepared to take action to defend their interests, together with the interests of their industry, and fight for a decent pay rise at a time of spiralling price increases. They must maintain that determination and resolve into 2023.