There’s trouble brewing down the line. Industrial relations trouble, that is. The RMT union has launched a ballot of its members for what it suggests could be a national rail strike over fears that there could be widespread redundancies. The TSSA union, which represents professional and white collar staff is also gearing up to ballot its members, citing three issues: a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies, an RPI pay rise and no deterioration of terms and condition of employment.
Instinctively, I have some support for what the unions are trying to do. Their main purpose, after all, is to protect the interests of their members. There is no doubt that given 30 of the past 43 years have seen Conservative-dominated governments who have regularly passed legislation hostile to unions, the tide needs turning. One only has to look to America where amazingly Amazon has been defeated in its attempt to prevent a union being formed at one of its big distribution centres in New York. Strong unions – backed by the right legislation – are an important counterpoint to aggressive employers who pay little regard to anything but the bottom line.
Indeed, it is RMT members who have suffered from the most recent example of a particularly egregious employer when P & O sacked 800 seafarers to replace them with lower paid staff. I enjoyed seeing their ships tied up and idle when I cycle along the Dover White Cliffs at Easter but that has not helped the poor staff who lost their jobs.
Therefore, it is quite possible to feel a lot of sympathy for the workforce and understand their feelings of militancy. They have had two difficult years and the future is equally uncertain. But there is, of course, another side of the coin. The financial support for the industry from the government during the pandemic was unparalleled and pretty generous. The railways have been kept going and while there are regrettable timetable cuts, the basic service has been maintained. Now though, there is a lot of pressure from the Treasury which has no understanding of the railways and is leaning on the Department for Transport to make cuts and reduce costs. In response, the DfT is micromanaging the railways, demanding explanations for every penny spent. Amazingly, according to a recent Freedom of Information request, it has 1,000 staff in its railways directorate busily micromanaging the whole industry.
In response to the pressure from these cuts, it is understandable that the unions are flexing their muscles. However, any major industrial action will play into the hands of those ministers who see the railways as a waste of money. They are already smarting about the cost and would support cutbacks – as long as they are not in their constituency.
Moreover, much as the unions are threatening widespread action, it will be difficult for them to carry out their threats. The anti-union legislation brought in by Mrs Thatcher comes into play. First they would have to ensure that at least half the workforce votes in ballots and then a majority of these support it. It is fanciful of the unions to think that there would be widespread support for long term national action. It was difficult enough for unions to try this in the 1980s, but nowadays it is nigh on impossible.
Of the three unions, ASLEF, which represents most train drivers, is pretty happy with what it has achieved since privatisaiton – an average wage of £12,500 for a five day week in 1994 has become a wage of £65,000 for what is effectively a four day week. There will not be much appetite for action amongst its 20,000+ membership. The RMT has not been successful in pushing up wages since it does not have the industrial muscle, nor do its members have the qualifications of train drivers that mean they are difficult to replace. However, it has by and large been pretty good at protecting jobs but its ability to continue to do so will be put to the test.
TSSA, which is planning to merge with an American union, is not strong enough to stop the railway, but can cause disruption. However, in the past it has been reluctant to call its members out, though this time I sense that it is very concerned about its members being made compulsorily redundant, which is something of a red line.
There is a way out of this. Old fashioned cooperation. In a rational world, the two sides would sit down together and try to work things out, given that they are both being dealt a bad hand by the government. The unions should be ready to make concessions over some of their demands such as ticket office openings– London Underground has shown in particular that closing offices has not lead to a massive deterioration in service provided staff are still on the concourse – and the role of guards on trains. For their part, the employers need to commit themselves to not reducing service standards – and staff numbers – at stations and on trains. They need to show they are serious about a better customer offer and work with the unions to achieve that.
One problem is that the RMT is controlled by what even many of their members accept are ‘head bangers’. The chief among these, Steve Hedley, the assistant general secretary, is leaving which may make things easier for the head of the union, Mick Lynch, a moderate who needs to sound like a militant. Unfortunately the atmosphere in the RMT remains toxic with, at the moment, regular pickets outside its headquarters of protesters against the dismissal of a member of staff. This is a union where the general secretary Mick Cash was under such pressure that he had to stand down for mental health reasons and where his predecessor Bob Crow, another moderate who had to wear wolf’s clothing, died on the job. It is up to the rank and file members to work to change that culture but it will not be easy and while the RMT acts as the advance guard of some obscure leftwing party, the membership will not be well served.
One key issue for negotiation is the redundancy terms on offer. Given the difficulties that many staff are facing, employers and the government must take a conciliatory approach to negotiations. Above all, generous redundancy packages are the best way of avoiding confrontation. British Railways, which on average shed 10,000 jobs during every year of his half century of existence, manage for the most part to avoid lengthy strikes as many of its staff were willing to take up the offer. Richard Beeching in fact best understood this and during his time at BR there was very little industrial action.
Here though is one way not to go about it. Nicky Hughes, Network Rail’s Director of Communications, put out a tweet to justify the generous pay of senior managers by arguing ‘business – both public and private – compete for managers who have these skills and pay accordingly. It’s a lesson to those of us who should probably have worked harder at school…’ Now I know she was kidding and perhaps she should have worked harder and would be in Andrew Haines’s seat, but really in the sensitive world of industrial relations, that was not a good joke. Let’s hope Network Rail show rather more sensitivity over the next few months, which promise to be very hard on all sides.
Starring Grant Shapps
I was amused by the recent mention in Nigel Harris’s Comment that when he asked to see Grant Shapps, he was effectively told that ‘Grant does not do railways’. In fact, he does do railways – but only when there’s a chance of making a film publicising Mr Grant Shapps. And it is never about the key issues facing the industry, such as proposed major cuts to timetables or how to pay for HS2, but rather flim flam such as the ridiculous competition for the location of Great British Railways
Now he has excelled himself with a video about the offer of more than a million fares at ‘up to’ half price. There is no doubt that Shapps is good at this sort of stuff. In a way one should admire a politician who is able to look a bit daft while extolling the virtues of various parts of the UK while holding a crab or bags of shopping. He is one of the best communicators that the Tories have (not a lot of competition to be fair) and if he were interested in the railways, he would be a great asset to them.
But actually there are two problems with this in addition to his clear lack of focus on the railways. First the offer consists of little more than a few cheap fares that may well have been available anyway and is only for a month anyway. What is needed is a proper long term restructuring of the fares with permanent cheap offers and the creation of a system that would be simple enough for occasional rail users to understand. That would not make a snappy video.
Secondly, it was obvious this was all about Shapps, and not about the railways. There was hardly a train on show and it focussed on the wrong market. Leisure is coming back, and people are even choosing to use rail for their discretionary journeys because fuel is so expensive. But the market that needs attracting is commuting, and here the best idea would be to offer incentives for season ticket holders, such as free journeys or even free Rover tickets. Since the government is controlling the railways, that should be possible.
The big unstated message of the video is that it is a recognition that the government runs the railways and is even responsible for marketing them. There really is very little point of private involvement if this points to the future of Great British Railways