Next week, RMT members will be undertaking the biggest national rail industrial action in thirty years, with 50,000 railway workers—more than half of the RMT’s total membership—taking part in a strike involving thirteen train operating companies, Network Rail, and the London Underground. If you were to listen to the mainstream media and the government for their coverage of the matter, you could be forgiven for thinking that this strike is being undertaken over the issue of train drivers’ pay. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What is often conveniently missed from coverage is that the vast majority of National Rail train drivers are represented by the ASLEF union, not the RMT. And while it’s often touted that train drivers make upwards of £50,000 a year, that’s far from the reality for everyone else on the railways, where gateline and luggage staff earn seldom in excess of £24,000, and outsourced cleaners must put up with less than £10 an hour.
In stations up and down the country, there are staff who work in roles ranging from the platforms, ticket offices, and information control centres to customer helplines, dispatchers, train managers, onboard hosts, signallers, passenger assistance, and many, many more. In short, this strike is not about train drivers’ salaries—it is about everyone who works on the railways.
On National Rail train operating companies and Network Rail, key workers have been subjected to a pay freeze for three years, all throughout the coronavirus pandemic. This is being brought to bear now, in the face of 11.1 percent inflation in the Retail Price Index, and with landlords raising rents, banks raising mortgage rates, and energy bills tripling for many households. We in the RMT are less fighting for a pay rise than we are fighting against an 11 percent pay cut.
These strikes must therefore been seen as part of a wider working-class movement, to push back against the cost of living crisis hitting the poorest hardest. The RMT will be well represented at the TUC We Demand Better: March and Rally on 18 June, and the RMT Young Members, Young Labour, and Tribune will jointly be hosting a fundraising social from 6pm, after the rally. (Get your tickets here—all proceeds go toward supporting the lowest-paid strikers in the coming week.)
Despite being a relatively small union, the RMT understands that our strike is particularly important, because it sets the tone for other industries being similarly told they must endure further real-terms pay cuts. We will not listen to central bankers earning millions a year when they warn we could start a wage-price inflation spiral. When so many workers haven’t had a pay rise in years, we reject the risk of a wage-price spiral—but if it is a real danger, how about we get some action on prices, instead of wages, for once?
While pay is naturally a large issue and a major reason for this strike action, what’s bigger are the changes being pushed by Network Rail and Whitehall. The UK government is currently planning on pushing through £2.2 billion in cuts to the UK rail network. No railway workers’ jobs are secure. Thousands of staff could potentially be sacked. This isn’t only bad for railway workers, it’s extremely dangerous for passengers. Network Rail, in particular, is planning on cutting the number of safety inspectors and outsourcing safety-critical work to agency staff.
If you need reminders of what happens when you cut corners on safety in the transport sector, look no further than the record of Railtrack. Railtrack was a group of private companies that took responsibility for the maintenance and safety of UK rail infrastructure between 1994 and 2002, after which it was subsequently renationalised and turned into Network Rail. During that period, three horrific accidents occurred on the UK railway network: the Ladbroke Grove rail crash in 1999, the Hatfield rail crash in 2000, and the Potters Bar rail crash in 2002. Cumulatively, these events took forty-two lives and injured hundreds more. The frequency of major rail accidents in such a short period of time forced the government to take the management of the UK’s rail infrastructure out of private hands. In short, when you cut corners on safety, people die.
When you have fewer staff in stations, there are less staff available to put ramps down for passengers in wheelchairs; there are less staff to help if someone has an accident in the station; there are less staff to help passengers if they miss a train. When you have fewer dispatchers, train managers, and onboard staff, you get fewer trains being run and more people crammed into dangerously overcrowded trains. Fewer staff means more dangerous and less comfortable travel on the railways, at a time when the climate emergency demands car journeys are replaced by train travel.
The most insulting thing about these proposals is that even in one of the worst years for rail companies during the pandemic, train operating companies still collectively made half a billion pounds in guaranteed profit, paid out of the public purse. This money has been paid out in dividends to the wealthy, while staff are taking pay cuts and their jobs are being made more precarious. While the executives of train operating companies earn upwards of half a million pounds a year, we workers are told that it must be us who tighten our belts and accept precarity.
That is what next week’s strike action is about. More than money, it is about dignity—dignity for staff to have security and fair compensation in their work, and dignity for passengers to not have their lives gambled with by the UK government. If you want to stay safe on the railways, support us on RMT picket lines taking place on 21, 23, and 25 June. As a great man once said, ‘If we all spit together…’ and, well, you know the rest.