Rail 628: Unions should play more positive role

On the day I started work on this column, my inbox was blessed with no fewer than three press releases from the tireless Geoff Martin, the press officer of the RMT union. Industrial relations in the rail industry seem to be at an all time low. There have been numerous ‘days of action’ – for which read ‘inaction’ – National Express East Anglia, London Midland (through a lack of volunteers for Sunday working) the Victoria Line of the London Underground and various other TOCs have been affected with threats or partial strikes.

 Undoubtedly, this industrial unrest has been exacerbated by the recession, as train operators have sought to save money while the unions at times appear oblivious to the fact that the economic situation has changed. However, the roots go deeper and illustrate a situation which could severely damage the long term prospects of the industry, unless the Department for Transport is prepared to play a more active role in industrial relations.

 From the press releases it sends out, the RMT seems to be stuck in a time warp when managers were the enemy and capitalism was about to be overturned by the next workers’ struggle. In fairness, of the three press releases I received that day, one was spot on, berating the huge and rather sinister private equity Carlyle Group – and obviously the operator, Eurostar which uses Carlyle for its cleaning services – for failing to pay its cleaners the recognised living wage in London. Pushing up the wages of the lowest paid and trying to ensure they are not exploited is a perfectly legitimate and traditional trade union activity which, frankly, the unions have failed to focus on sufficiently in recent years. It is, in truth, Eurostar’s fault for contracting out what is a basic service. Their managers were clearly too lazy to run their own cleaning service and thought it would save money by passing on the work, but that has opened them up to a risk of being bystanders in a dispute that is out of their control .

 The other two are typical of the ‘who runs this company’ dispute of the past. One is on the Victoria Line where Bob Crow and his chums are aghast that London Underground want the drivers to sometimes run five round trips between Walthamstow and Brixton. The norm is four journeys which each take around an hour and a quarter but until 2003, shifts, which are 8.5 hours long, frequently included ‘five rounders’. These were abandoned, except at weekends, after union complaints that the cabs were not properly air conditioned, but this has now been fixed – and new trains coming on stream – and the mangagment wants a return to weekday ‘five rounders’. One could ask why the union finds these unacceptable at weekdays, when the Tube is just as busy, but perfectly OK at weekends. The reason, apparently, is that this then allows more people to have a day off at weekends as fewer staff have to come in to cover the same number of diagrams.

 The press release talks of ‘an underhand attempt to extract 20 per cent [actually it is 25 per cent, Bob] from the working day from our members’ but surely this is perfectly legitimate when it means that ‘the drivers use more of their paid time to operate trains rather than sitting having extra cups of tea’, as a management source put it. They are not being asked to do anything except work the hours for which they are paid.

 In fact, underlying the dispute is that the drivers are annoyed that many now have to operate from a new depot in Brixton, rather than Seven Sisters, adding to the time they have to travel to work but hardly different from the commuters who pay their wages and who often have to make similar journeys. Driving a tube train up and down the Victoria Line, which is all in tunnel, is undoubtedly a difficult and tedious task, but they are well rewarded for it – £40,000 for a 36 hour week –  far above what jobs with comparable skills levels require (especially as in fact the trains are run automatically and the driver is by and large a guard opening and closing the doors and stopping the train in an emergency). Moreover, the Underground is publicly owned, which Crow favours, and any extra costs can only come out of the fare box or extra council tax. Yet, he is prepared to get his members and inconvenience hundreds of thousands of Londoners for such a narrow issue. It hardly backs his case for nationalising the rail industry.

 The third dispute, on the Docklands Light Railway run by Serco on behalf of Transport for London is quite similar and relates to a change from twelve hour to eight hour rosters for control room staff. The outcome of this is that their members’ ‘work life balance’ will be affected and that it will cost them 24 rest days per year since they worked fewer days with the longer shifts.

 This is hardly another issue that hardly merits strike action. Sure, one can understand that many workers had got used to 12 hour shifts but, having worked some myself in the less safety critical area of newspapers, they are desperately hard and tiring, and could lead have safety implications. I am sure that if Serco were trying to change it the other way around, Crow would be playing the safety card and arguing that 12 hour shifts were unacceptable.

 The unions may be acting in a Neanderthal way, but the management’s response has been weak. The Association of Train Operating Companies refuses to discuss labour issues, referring to the individual operators, and they in turn are mostly too terrified of antagonising the unions to speak publicly. Yet, this is an issue which could threaten the viability of the industry. Because there are twenty different operators, the unions can target the weakest, win the argument, and then force other operators to comply. That is why drivers are now paid £40,000 per year for a 35 hour week, compared with around £16,000 at privatisation for 39 hours.

 There has, too, been examples of plain bad management. Take the example of London Midland – already a poor performing operator as a result of being mismanaged – where recently there were no Sunday trains because the company is still dependent on volunteers offering to work. The boycott arose because London Midland tried to withdraw its double time payments for Sundays and in response had to reinstate them. Yet, that arrangement had only been introduced in March this year and now the £380 London Midland drivers are getting for a Sunday shift will be used by the union as a benchmark.

 Wages are also kept high by the difficulty of recruitment caused by the long training period and that applies to guards, too, which is often totally unnecessary. Invariably, it takes three to four months before a new guard can be used employed productively and yet managements have failed to try to reduce this ridiculously long period, despite the fact that a guard’s job bears no ressemblance to those of BR days when their duties were far more varied and safety related.

 Obviously it is impossible to know the ins and outs of these disputes, and much conflict often results from the personalities involved. However it is clear that industrial relations in the industry are in a poor state and that is a direct result of the fragmentation resulting from privatisaition. It is one of the ironies that while smashing the unions was a clear albeit unstated aim of privatisation, it has had the opposite effect, enriching the workers and bolstering the unions. The RMT is one of the few with a growing membership, since its bullish tactics have achieved results in the face of timidity from the operators and a failure by the Department for Transport to recognise its crucial role in this arena

 In fact the Department has a key role. Franchises are too short for the train operators to want to risk lengthy disputes with the unions as any lost day will cost a couple of million or so. They know that the extra costs of any agreement will be included in any negotiations over franchise extensions or reletting and therefore ultimately borne by the taxpayer, rather than the company.

 Therefore there is a mismatch caused by the short term nature of the franchising system. The risks are borne by the state, but the negotiations are handled by the train operators. It is noticeable that Network Rail, which is a national organisation has been able to stand up to the unions and negotiate over disputes, without triggering a strike. NR too, however, was reluctant to talk to me for this column, possibly because quietly it is doing rather well in terms of industrial relations.

 The unions, combined with the failure of the Department to intervene, risk pushing the railways into a position where they become increasingly uneconomic and impossible to manage.  Unions have an important role to play but they have not changed with the times. Their constant resort to ‘safety’ fears in an industry where the accident rate is as close to zero as is possible is a dishonest piece of propaganda. In BR days, they seemed to recognise that for their jobs to remain secure, they needed a healthy industry that was financially restrained. Not so now. They see the private operators as easy prey and yet, ultimately, as usual, it is us who are paying the bill.


Praise for British Rail from the good Lord



At the launch of my new book, Blood, Iron and Gold, how the railways transformed the world (Rail will be announcing an offer soon) Lord Adonis gave an impassioned speech demonstrating not just his love of the railways, but his strong views about their history. While his criticism of privatisation echoed that of his predecessors, who always argued it was botched, he went a step further by praising British Rail. He was particularly critical of the way that railway skills and expertise had been lost through the break up of British Rail and how the lack of a central railway organisation meant that the ability to plan for major investment schemes, such as electrification and high speed lines had been lost.

 That is really interesting coming from a minister who was the brains behind the academy programme in education. He is no romantic praising every aspect of British Rail, but he is accepting that much more was lost with the demise of BR than is often recognised. There is a hint, too, that he is accepting the argument I have put forward previously in this column for a railways agency that would carry out the sort of long term planning and strategic thinking that is essential for a successful industry.

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