Rail 574: Unions should play a cannier game

Industrial relations on the railways have soured noticeably with strikes on the London Underground, and ‘One’, as well as several ongoing disputes. There seems to be a new militancy afoot and indeed there is evidence of a parallel universe in the emails that pop up in my inbox almost every day. It describes a Britain redolent of the past, somewhere in the 1970s when miners forced three day weeks and dustmen left piles of festering rubbish on the streets for months. There are the baddies, the employers or privateers as they are mostly called, and the goodies, the glorious workers who can do know wrong but are always being wronged.

This, of course, is the world according to the RMT union, one of the last bastions of the sort of trade union muscle which won the 1979 election for Mrs Thatcher and led to the changes which she brought about. In reality, the unions were never quite as powerful as they were presented to be in the right wing papers, but nevertheless there was considerable abuse of their position. In my industry, the media, for example, there were ridiculous restrictive practices that led to massively increased costs and inefficiencies, and much activity that bordered on the criminal with people signing on for shifts as ‘Donald Duck’ or not turning up at all.

The transport industry was not immune to these sort of abuses. The inquiry into the King’s Cross fire in 1987 revealed that there was an informal arrangement between the staff to allow one person not to turn up or leave early, which on the fateful night meant there was insufficient staff.

The print unions were broken by a combination of determined proprietors – remember Eddie Shah and his Today newspaper? – Mrs Thatcher’s legislation which removed the ability of unions to support each other and the advent of new technology which reduced the need for large numbers of printworkers.

In transport, privatisation and deregulation greatly reduced the ability of bus drivers to maintain their wages as it became far more difficult for them to organise strikers. However, on the railways privatisation did the train drivers an enormous favour as drivers found they could simply move to companies where the wages were better. Given it takes months to train a driver – a market rigidity to put it in the business language the various operators found themselves bidding up their drivers wages in order to improve retention rates and consequently ASLEF, which represents most drivers, has had a happy time in the past decade, very rarely having to resort to industrial action or even threats.

The RMT is far more militant and belligerent. Its leader, Bob Crow, is an unabashed socialist who was formerly in the Communist Party and then Arthur Scargill’s tiny Socialist Labour Party, and remains supportive of the overthrow of capitalism. Therefore – and it is important to stress this – for him trade unionism is not simply about supporting the members’ demand for better wages and conditions, but it is part of a wider class struggle that is far more important than these immediate narrow concerns. The workers are, in effect, pawns in this game, just as they were in many of the industrial disputes of the turbulent sixties and seventies.

I have a lot of sympathy with trade unionists and their aims. There is no doubt that one of the ills of this age is that the pendulum in the great conflict between labour and capital has swung too far in the latter’s direction. In this globalised competitive world, people work insanely long hours to the detriment of family life and have insufficient job security while company directors pay themselves far too much and shareholders are rewarded disproportionately. However, for the RMT to turn every issue over, say, the reduction of staffing levels at Underground stations because of the greater use of the Oyster card into part of the great historical ‘class struggle’ is deeply damaging to the industry.

That is not to say the RMT is always wrong. Indeed, its position on franchising which questions the purpose of the exercise is not enormously different from my own. But having the RMT on the side of common sense makes it look nonsensical. The RMT press releases are couched in such ludicrously aggressive and confrontational terms, with frequent reference to ‘privateers’, that they are largely ignored, except when the right wing press wants to attack Neanderthal trade unionists. It is the language of class war in which every issue is blown up into a wider conflict between the workers and their employers.

Of course the job of the trade union is to defend its workers and there are times when the union is right to take a tough line. This certainly is the case in the ‘One’ dispute over an inspector sacked for hitting a passenger. In fact, this seems to have been an act of self-defence as the passenger concerned, a teenager without a ticket who allegedly leapt over a ticket barrier, hassled passengers and lit a cigarette on the train, was about to hit the inspector, Paul Yarwood, who had intervened to challenge him. Yarwood may have got his punch in first, but he deserves the support of the company against the yobbery that affects late night suburban services. The case has attracted sympathetic national newspaper attention and yet National Express has refused to back down from its decision to sack him instantly, even though this is in breach of its normal procedures. Moreover, staff see this as a refusal by the company to back them over the growing problem of violent and abusive passengers, a phenomenon that is made worse by managements making staff treat all passengers as fare dodges and reducing the amount of flexibility that inspectors are allowed.

However, such a clearcut case is the exception. Most of the disputes are trumped up issues of ‘safety’, an issue that is remorselessly exploited by the RMT, usually but not always wrongly, or arguments over redeploying people as the structure of the industry changes. Often, as in the case of the Tube dispute which arose out of the Metronet, the union is expressing concerns over something that might happen in the future, rather than over any existing changes.

Indeed, the Tube strike is a typical example of a union making an ‘impossibilist’ demand because Transport for London is not able to offer the assurances of job guarantees which the union is seeking since the Metronet contract has collapsed. This is an old tactic of revolutionary socialists which involves making demands that cannot be met by management in order to expose the fact that workers are exploited and therefore that the only solution is a revolution in which the capitalists are overthrown.

But why do the trade union members support these strikes? All of these disputes can only turn into strikes if there is support of the workers in a ballot. The votes in favour of action tend to be overwhelming, but there is a good reason for that. Most of the time the members know that the union is playing a game of brinkmanship and voting in favour of the ballot costs them nothing, as most disputes are resolved before any action is taken. Moreover, even when there is action, it is generally just a day’s stoppage, which does not hit them hard in their pocket, though can be financially very damaging for the operator concerned.

That is, indeed, the reason why the unions still have so much power in the railways. They know that withdrawing labour is very damaging and therefore managements will do the utmost to avoid stoppages. There is blame on both sides, here. Managements are not always canny at choosing the right times to hold firm or give way, as witnessed by the One dispute.

It is difficult to overestimate the damaging effect on the industry of this poor industrial relations situation. For the unions, it destroys their own case. For passengers, constant threats of disruption and lack of reliability makes them less likely to use the railways. For the companies, the prospect of strikes makes investment less attractive. Worst of all, it gives the government an excuse for not looking to rail as a wider solution to its transport difficulties.

If one thing guarantees that the government will retain the franchising system, it is the RMT’s constant demands to abolish it, couched in the most ridiculous language. Indeed, the one thing that is deterring Transport for London from taking on the Metronet contracts permanently is the difficult relationship it has with the unions. The Commissioner, Peter Hendy, bemoans the fact that the RMT has more disputes with the sole large publicly owned railway in the country, the London Underground, than with any of the private companies.

The answer lies in the trade union members’ hands. Amazingly, Bob Crow claims he is actually a voice of moderation compared with some of the members of his executive committee who are far more extremist. All of these officials are elected and if the ordinary railway workers want to see a more sensible approach from their union, they should vote accordingly.

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