I am writing this column just after the first national rail strike since the early days of Railtrack was announced, and I am conscious that events between now and publication may change the situation. Indeed, Mystic Wolmar might even suggest that the strikes will probably not take place given the weakness of the vote by signallers who only supported it by 54 – 46 but nevertheless it is worth examining the state of industrial relations in the railways because even if this strike is averted, the risk of other ones remains high.
In a way, I have a lot of sympathy with what the union is doing. It is one of the last redoubts of resistance against the neo-liberal tide that has brought us privatisation, PPPs and a structure so complex that the industry is costing taxpayers several times more than it used to under BR. Oh yes, and the banking crisis too.
But the union is fighting it in the wrong industry. The railways are a public service, largely funded by the taxpayer and an essential part of Britain’s infrastructure. The union may demand renationalisation but, in effect, we have it already. Not only is Network Rail, as we all know, really a state company, but there is East Coast now in state hands and several of the train operators now benefitting from the cap and collar arrangements which effectively passes the revenue risk to government, there is precious little raw capitalism left in the railways. Bob Crow has won but it does not suit his cause to admit it.
And that’s the point. Bob Crow is all about militancy, battles, grievances, confrontation etc. Why does Crow and his political pals not take on real opponents, a rapacious capitalist company intent on screwing the last penny out of its customers and making life miserable for its workers. There is no shortage of companies whose workers could well do with the kind of militancy exhibited by Crow, where employers refuse to recognise unions and pay contemptible wages. But building up union strength in such hostile places is a slow painstaking job whereas in the rail industry there are easy pickings. Like the newspaper industry of the past, until the print unions were broken at Wapping by Rupert Murdoch, the railways are uniquely vulnerable. Just as yesterday’s news has no value, once a train does not run, it is lost forever. Production cannot be stepped up the next day to regain it. British Airways, too, is suffering from this harsh reality.
The key question about industrial relations in the railway industry is why are they so bad? Fortunately, RMT press releases are no longer sent on paper as otherwise the forests would be depleted. The union literally sends out a torrent of releases which almost invariably are about proposed ballots, threats of action or great victories won. The union is deliberately confrontational. It is, as it were, its brand image.
The union is a striking union, and is proud of it. There is a remarkable article by professor Ralph Darlington, an eminent academic specialising in trade unions, which, revealingly, the RMT proudly displays on its website. The professor makes clear that confrontation is the guiding ethos of the union: ‘A crucial ingredient of the RMT’s organising approach has been the explicit rejection of social partnership in favour of union militancy and strike mobilisation as the path to the defence of workers’ conditions and the reinvigoration of union organisation. Indeed, in many respects RMT’s “brand image” is essentially that of being a striking union.’
The meticulous professor has catalogued the stream of calls for industrial action that spring up in my inbox almost daily and the figures are remarkable: ‘On London Underground and the national railway network between January 2002 and December 2009 the union balloted in favour of industrial action on at least 141 different occasions, with such ballots leading to strikes (mainly 24 or 48-hour) on 59 different occasions, and involving no less than 172 strike days overall.’ I suspect, the professor has got it somewhat wrong as so many of strikes, which are mainly local, are called off at the last minute. Nevertheless, it is a shoot first, ask questions later policy.
The trouble is – it works. According to the professor, ‘there has been a direct relationship (or ‘virtuous circle’) between the RMT’s ‘striking’ approach, its effectiveness in obtaining bargaining gains, membership growth and union revitalisation’. The threats of action have ‘successfully leveraged significant collective bargaining concessions from employers on pay, rosters, jobs, working practices, pensions, outsourcing, etc’. In turn, ‘this has strengthened the RMT’s bargaining position and provided material evidence of the union’s power and effectiveness vis-à-vis the employers. It has boosted members’ morale, confidence and sense of collective power generally.’ In other words, militancy works and that’s why the ballots are almost invariably in favour of strike action. Professor Darlington catalogues several other reasons for the union’s success, such as carefully nurturing support at the shopfloor level, Bob Crow’s strong leadership and the overtly left wing stance.
The union’s weapon in trying to mobilise public support is the safety card. It was noticeable that at the press conference announcing the strike, this was the theme of Bob Crow’s speech and yet, according to Network Rail insiders, safety was not mentioned in the talks running up to the strike decision. Indeed, I was on a Radio 5 Live phone in that evening with Andy Warnock-Smith and pressed him about what precisely were the union’s demands, and it became clear that they boiled down to ‘no compulsory redundancies’ and concerns about ‘what the company might do next’. In fact, there were already enough offers of voluntary redundancies to cover all but around 200 jobs. While of course no one wants people to be forced into unemployment, jobs for life are regrettably a thing of the past. It is not as if Network Rail were a venal employer casually tossing hundreds of people onto the dole.
What of the managers? Could they do more to create a better climate of industrial relations in the industry? Certainly the train operators are hampered by fragmentation and the short terms of their contracts. As I have argued before, most of the costs of generous deals fall on the taxpayers and it is understandable that the operators do not want to push the unions too hard. Longer franchises may toughen their stance, depending on who ends up with the extra labour costs resulting from deals.
As for Network Rail, it is difficult to see what they can do if Professor Darlington’s analysis is correct. Acquiescing to all the unions’ demands would be rather like Neville Chamberlain’s efforts at Munich, while standing firm risks ending up in a strike. One suspects, though, that the management style of an organisation led by a man as bullish and intransigent as Iain Coucher is more likely to end up with a strike than if there were someone like, say, Tim O’Toole, the former head of London Underground and now heading for Tube Lines, in charge. The best way of disarming the union would be through a charm offensive by top managers and that is a quality rather lacking in the upper echelons of Network Rail management. Even the once affable Robin Gisby, the director of operations, seems to have been ground down, perhaps understandably, by the task of dealing with the ever aggressive unions.
The RMT’s aggressive stance may serve the interests of its members, but it does not help either the rail industry or its users. The crucial issue is that most of the extra cost which the union is trying to impose on the industry comes from taxpayers’ pockets. If the national strike takes place, there will be no winners but unfortunately, as Professor Darlington has pointed out, the RMT’s position has brought it much success in the past. Only if it is seen to fail will the members realise that a fresh approach to industrial relations in the industry is needed.
There are dangers to the union as the professor points out. He suggests that repeated cries of wolf may prove counterproductive, that unpopular strikes, like the Tube on New Year’s Eve, will undermine any public support and that strikes themselves are a high risk option as they could fail. In other words, the union is playing high stakes poker and given the thinness of the signallers’ vote in favour of this industrial action, it may have overreached itself which might explain the desperate playing of the safety card. Perhaps then the members will push the union into a more sensible approach to industrial relations. One can but hope.
The secret ban on nationalisation
When Lord Adonis took back the East Coast franchise, he said that legislation prevented him from doing so permanently and that therefore it would remain in the public sector for a maximum of two years. I queried this, wondering where the legislation preventing permanent public ownership of franchises had come from since I was under the impression that the original privatisation legislation had allowed British Rail to bid after an amendment had been introduced at a late stage.
I was given the run-around by the Department who referred me to various pieces of legislation which were not relevant to my question. I would need this whole column to explain the intricate detail, but suffice to say that my lawyer friends were not satisfied with the Department’s answers.
Then the House of Commons Transport Committee began asking the same questions and its chairwoman, Louise Ellman, asked Lord Adonis to specify precisely what the legislation stated. She has now passed on his letter to me and it says that according to Section 23 of the Railways Act 2005, the East Coast services are designated as ‘services that are to be provided under a franchise agreement’ and therefore must be franchised out. To ‘disapply’ these provisions, would require an order of the house – in other words legislation.
However, that would only be a statutory instrument and easy to pass and therefore it was rather disingenuous to say that it was impossible for the state to retain the franchise. Intriguingly, Lord Adonis also told Ms Ellman that ‘I would expect any bids from potential franchisees to build on the high standards I hope East Coast will achieve, and any bids for the new franchise will have to demonstrate better value for money than the state operator’. That suggests leaving the door open for permanent state operation, though, of course, the good Lord is unlikely to still be in office when the issue comes up.
But there is a bigger question. Irrespective of one’s views about renationalisation, surely if the Railways Act 2005 made such a radical policy change from the original 1993 legislation, there should have been a public debate about it? Or was New Labour simply, as ever, running scared that it was carrying out an unpopular policy?