Rail unions stuck in 20th century

The RMT may use email to send out their press releases but that seems to be the only sign that the union is living in the 21st century. The stream of notices that plop all too frequently into my inbox are redolent of the industrial relations of the 1960s and 1970s when the bosses were the class enemy and the union was the only protection for the working man. The constant threats of imminent strikes and walk-outs in the press releases make it appear that Mrs Thatcher never happened.

But now the RMT has come rather unstuck. The union called a series of strikes on the London Underground to coincide with the New Year but far from bringing London to a halt, there was little of the promised ‘chaos’ with just a few station closures, notably on the particularly militant Piccadilly Line.

The RMT has overstretched itself. Calls for industrial action are usually backed in ballots by members simply because they fell it gives the union a sabre to rattle at the management. But most of them recognised that the deal on the Underground for a 35 hour week was beyond the wildest dreams of most of their fellow Londoners and therefore crossed the picket line in droves.

The trouble for the union leadership is that most of the time the RMT’s threats do not turn into action because they are used to managements backing down. Now that their bluff has been called by London Underground’s management, their position has been considerably weakened.

In fact, while the right wing press may portray the RMT as being very strong, its bark is louder than its bite. One exasperated train operator said meeting with the union negotiatiors was rather like dealing with a ‘cartoon mafia’: ‘They come into the meetings and whinge for half an hour about us not showing them proper respect. Most of it is just emotional nonsense and you have to allow them to let off steam, before they will calm down and get down to business’.

In London, Bob Crow, the union’s militant leader, is to the right of his executive members and therefore has been pushed into action he did not want to take. Executive members from the rail industry outside the capital tend to be more moderate and therefore it has been possible to cut deals with, for example, Network Rail.

The other blue collar union in the railway industry is ASLEF, which represents train drivers. ASLEF has had its own difficulties recently with the sacking of its right wing general secretary by the left-dominated executive after a fracas at a barbecue and allegations of a cover up over financial irregularities. However, the decision to sack Brady has been reversed at an Industrial Tribunal and the union’s leadership is currently in a state of limbo.

ASLEF, however, does have real industrial muscle. It has managed to exploit the fact that rail privatisation broke up British Rail into two dozen train operators which severely weakened the management’s ability to resist upward pressure on wages. Since it takes nine months to train a driver and even then to operate a particular service, the driver has to have route knowledge, which means there is no possibility of employing scab labour. Consequently wages are nearly all above £30,000, with some reaching £35,000, an excellent salary for a blue collar job. In comparison bus drivers get at most £20,000 and many much less than that.
London Underground managers are far more worried about the possibility of wider ASLEF action following a partial walkout over the sacking of a driver who went through a red light and broke the speed limit. Moreover, there is also likely to be more trouble ahead with the RMT in London as the main contract with the Underground runs out in May and a big set piece battle over wage rates is on the cards. The 21st century still beckons for the rail unions.

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