The RMT has begun a major industrial ballot, involving over 40,000 rail workers across Network Rail (NR) and 15 train operating companies (TOCs). This follows on from the successful ballot of 13,000 workers at Transport for London.
If successful, this will result in “potentially the biggest rail strike in modern history”, according to the RMT.
The strike is a response to £2 billion in proposed cuts, alongside a pay freeze: demanded by the Tories following their ‘bailout’ of the railways during lockdowns, and carried out by the bosses.
These cuts include the slashing of an estimated 2,500 jobs at NR, following on from the voluntary severance scheme already implemented last year.
Proposals by management suggest that many operators would be laid-off. In their place, assistant technicians would be brought in. This includes apprentices on low pay, who can be deployed over multiple disciplines and across regions.
These are safety-critical jobs. By reducing specialisation and increasing workloads, on top of planned reductions in maintenance activities, the railways will be made more dangerous for both passengers and staff.
Let us not forget that under private infrastructure operator Railtrack, a similar attempt at cutting costs and corners led to a series of disastrous derailments and crashes – including Potters Bar, Southall, and Hatfield – in which many passengers died.
In a ludicrous letter to NR workers urging them to vote No, CEO Andrew Haines stated:
“I know it’s been a tough two years, and right now everyone is feeling the effect of paying higher prices for food, goods and services…To attract future government investment, we must show we can make long-term savings…”
In other words, rail bosses are telling workers that they must take a real wage cut, and face losing their jobs, in order to make the railway ‘affordable’. We can bet, meanwhile, that Mr Haines – who earns almost £600k per year – and the rest of the bosses will not be “feeling the effect” of austerity and inflation to quite the same extent.
We can have no trust in the Tories and bosses, who promise endless negotiations with the unions, with hollow rhetoric about ‘pulling together’, all while planning behind closed doors to continue with their attacks on workers.
We can see clearly where the deficit comes from. And it is not from the pay demands of the workers.
£174 million is syphoned off by NR every year in outsourcing, for starters. Elsewhere, the TOCs made £329 million in profits on the back of COVID-related agreements. And a whopping £950 million was paid out in dividends by the ROSCOs (rolling stock companies) in 2020.
These profits are entirely parasitic. Britain’s rail industry lags far behind other countries due to chronic underinvestment – with absent or archaic electrification; outdated signalling equipment; and quasi-inexistent high-speed lines.
But instead of much-needed investment and planning, in order to build a high quality and affordable public railway network, the Tories and bosses instead propose to ‘modernise’ the system through plunder.
These ladies and gentlemen tell us that we cannot afford decent wages and conditions for rail workers. We say: we cannot afford them! They are the ones who must be axed!
This strike, therefore, must demand democratic control of the entire rail industry – by workers, for workers. This means expropriating the current private owners without compensation: the TOCs, ROSCOs, and NR’s main private contractors.
For decades, the RMT has formally been in support of nationalisation and workers’ control. These demands must be placed at the forefront of this strike.
Without such measures, if the likes of Andrew Haines, Boris Johnson, and Grant Shapps remain in the driver’s seat, even if we win our initial demands, it will not be long before the capitalists are back on the offensive, meaning further strike again down the line.
A national strike of the railways, especially if coordinated with strike action at TfL, could bring the country to a halt. This would put the unions in a strong position to take on not only the bosses, but also this rotten Tory government. The potential to win our political demands will be high.
Such a strike would be a beacon to the whole of the labour movement – connecting with the Summer of Discontent that is already brewing, as attacks on jobs, pay, and conditions are felt across the board.
For maximum effect, therefore, this strike must be coordinated with the rest of the trade unions, alongside a one-day public sector strike, as part of a mass campaign to bring down the crisis-ridden Tories.
We echo RMT general secretary Mick Lynch’s call to the TUC general council: “The TUC has got to stand up and decide where it is in these campaigns. We’re not going to win this through lobbying, through sending circulars and letters. We're going to win it on the streets, on the picket lines, and through industrial action coordinated right across our movement.”
Alongside coordination at the top, united action must be built from the ground up by developing workplace committees, trades councils, and committees of action.
As a first point of call, if the railways are to be brought to a complete standstill, activists in the RMT should reach out to the rank and file in ASLEF, TSSA, and Unite to widen the strike.
The time to act is now! We say:
- Vote ‘Yes’ for a national railway strike!
- No trust in the bosses and their political representatives! Put workers in control!
- Unite and fight! For coordinated action across the labour movement!
- Nationalise the rail system! Expropriate the fat cats without compensation!