RMT disputes are not a return to the 1970s

It’s all happening on the railways. A five day strike on Southern rail services, a walkout over a 2008 agreement at Eurostar and Virgin East Coast also set to be affected by strike action. Sounds like the good – or rather bad – old days of the 1970s when strikes and work to rule protests backed by picket lines went hand in hand with Daily Mail warnings of “the enemy within”.

The longstanding row going on at Southern is the most significant of these disputes because there is clearly an agenda from the government. The Southern contract is not, like most of those granted to train operators, a franchise but rather a management contract. The key difference is that this means all the revenue from fares goes straight to the government and there is no revenue risk for Govia, the operator which just receives a management fee for running services.

Therefore, in negotiations with the unions, it is the Department for Transport which is calling the tune rather than the operator, and it is obvious that the government wants an end to the requirement to have a second person on each train on Southern services. The man in charge of franchises, Peter Wilkinson, made it clear in an unusually candid speech back in February that this dispute was intended to be a key moment in changing past practice. He suggested the unions had been featherbedded for too long and needed to be brought under control: “It has got to change – we have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place.”

Although Govia has said there will still be a second person, it will no longer be the case that this will be mandatory. In other words, services will be able to operate without that second person and there will be nothing to stop a gradual reduction of trains having a customer services person, as they will now be called. That is why both the RMT and the operator/department have locked horns so fiercely in the Southern dispute. The RMT, with some justification, points to a safety risk on making the driver, rather than the guard, operate the doors on very crowded Southern services.

The other two potential strikes have the feeling of grandstanding on both sides, and are likely to get resolved. The RMT, which is the union behind all three strike actions, uses militancy as a recruiting tool and is prepared to go to the brink knowing strikes are costly for employers. It is a tactic that has worked well for years and these two threats of action are just the latest in a long series of similar disputes, most of which get resolved without a walk-out.

So are we back to the days of the three day week and strife on the streets? Hardly. The union movement is a busted flush, ground down by technological changes and restrictive legislation, and is characterised by a failure to adapt to 21st century realities. When I talk to senior trade unionists in the transport industry, they are fully aware that they need to change in order to develop an approach that is more in keeping with their strength in today’s world. However, they are often constrained by activists who dominate their conferences and branches and who are more militant than they are. As for the members supporting action, it is rather like the reasons underlying the Brexit vote: a general disaffection and a way of giving two fingers to their bosses. They are weary of being marginalised and no longer being considered in decisions made by management, so they will support action even if they know that it is not over the real issues.

These disputes, therefore, are about the wider disaffection of workers with managements who are increasingly out of touch and overpaid. They happen in the transport industry because that is one of the few areas where industrial action can still be effective and forces management  to take note. 1973, though, it ain’t.

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