Thousands of rail workers are about to take on the government in the biggest strike for years – and facing attacks from the Tory press. Two activists from the RMT rail union told rs21 why they will be striking, and why other workers should support them.
Grant Murray and Dalbir Dhillon both work as conductors for Northern – Grant is the RMT branch secretary at Manchester Victoria station, and Dalbir the assistant branch secretary. They and their colleagues are now entering their third year without a pay rise, at a time when inflation is the highest it’s been for thirty years. It’s not that they are rejecting a pay offer – there is no offer.* The negotiators they normally deal with have been told they don’t have the authority to offer anything. It’s clear that they are taking instructions from the government.
But pay isn’t the only issue. National Rail is proposing job losses, and train companies are talking about ‘workplace reform’, which means fewer jobs on worse conditions. Union members are open to discussing changes, Grant explains – ‘but we want to discuss modernisation, not have it imposed’.
Dalbir explains in more detail what the Tories have planned: ‘The government is trying to strip National Rail of 2,500 track maintenance workers, make them redundant. Then they’ll hire 1,040 “multi-skilled” workers on inferior pay and inferior terms and conditions. The last time cuts like this were proposed on the maintenance side of the railway was when we had Railtrack. A lot of maintenance work is preventative. The Railtrack model was, only deal with a problem once it’s happened. This is what they’re aiming for now.’ Railtrack provided railway infrastructure twenty years ago, at the time of the Hatfield crash where four people died and the Ladbroke Grove crash which took 31 lives. Dalbir is concerned that maintenance cuts could mean that happening again.
It’s pay in particular which has led to a 90 percent vote for strike action at Northern. ‘Even the managers,’ says Dalbir, ‘are unhappy with not having a pay rise for three years.’ Three days of walk outs – on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday – will disrupt the railways all week. You might think that loss of income would bring the employers back to the table – but that’s not how rail financing works now. Franchising collapsed during the pandemic, and the government currently hands out contracts to run services, which guarantee train operating company profits whether trains run or not. The profit goes to the private companies – which made £500 million during the pandemic, with very few trains and hardly any passengers. But the risk if anything goes wrong remains with the taxpayer.
Grant Shapps has claimed that rail workers who strike put their jobs at risk – that’s just bluster, when any successful economy needs a public transport system. But the government isn’t investing or planning for the future of transport, even when other countries are. ‘We’ve got targets to cut our carbon emissions,’ comments Grant, ‘and public transport has to be part of that, as well as dealing with the traffic congestion in many towns and cities’. ‘That’s the approach in a lot of EU countries with nationalised railways,’ adds Dalbir, listing Germany, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Belgium. ‘Their railways are much more advanced than ours. They’ve had the investment they need.’
Instead of investment, the government’s approach seems to combine managed decline of the railway with attacks on both workers and passengers. They are even talking about closing all ticket offices, as Johnson did on the tube when he was Mayor of London. Age UK have expressed concern about the effect on elderly people, and Dalbir’s own experience reflects the same issues: ‘I spoke to a passenger today, an elderly woman who was appalled at that idea – she’s visually impaired, she said she needs the ticket office, she needs help with her travel plans. The government isn’t considering society, they just consider private profit.’
The government and Tory press, instead of negotiating, are on the attack, claiming that rail workers earn an average of £44,000, and talking about restricting the right to strike or bringing in agency workers to undermine the action. Dalbir isn’t defensive about the fact that some RMT members are well paid. ‘People come up to me and say, “you’re paid more than nurses, it’s disgraceful”. My other half’s a nurse. I say to those people, “you’re right. Let’s change that. Let’s challenge the government to put nurses’ wages up.” Good employment shouldn’t be a race to the bottom. No one wins from that except the employers and big business.’
But he also stresses that many RMT members don’t take home those wages: ‘I don’t earn anything like that. Yes, the RMT represents some high-skilled workers who are decently paid for the job they do. We also represent workers on zero-hour contracts who are treated abysmally and are paid minimum wage.’ For those staff, like all workers, the threat to withdraw their labour is the most important weapon they have, and a fundamental human right. ‘Leaders of every union should be condemning those threats,’ says Grant. ‘If it happens on the railway it will happen in other workplaces.’
As for using agency workers, Grant stresses that rail workers do complicated tasks that require years of training – a conductor can only do their job after 6-8 months training and takes two years to become fully qualified, while a driver takes three years. Dalbir lists the many different positions filled by RMT members, which agency staff couldn’t simply take over – conductors, guards, ticket examiners, gateline staff, platform staff, booking office staff, floorwalkers, catering staff on long distance services, social media advisers, clerical staff, National Rail maintenance and track workers, signallers, and drivers.
The RMT isn’t affiliated to Labour nationally, though it supports some MPs. Grant and Dalbir are both unimpressed by the Labour leadership’s response to the strike. Grant feels that Keir Starmer has sat on the fence, and that ‘at the moment the leadership of the Labour Party isn’t working for British workers.’ Dalbir adds: ‘Lisa Nandy’s been talking about a cooperative model for the railways. That’s not nationalisation. Is Labour the party that was founded by the unions, that’s on the side of unions and workers? Or is it the party of business? To be honest, unions need to decide if they want to go on funding such a party. Either hold the so-called party of workers to account, or withdraw the funding.’
If people want to support rail workers, what should they do? Both activists encourage supporters to come down to picket lines. Dalbir says: ‘we want to talk to you, to tell you what’s going on, because we’re seeing it first hand.’ RMT members can provide the information that can undercut the claims in the Tory press. Grant also suggests that people can write to their MP – and that they should join a union themselves if they aren’t a member of one.
After the big TUC demo on Saturday, 18 June, it’s clear that a growing mood for strikes over pay is taking shape. Postal and communication workers in the CWU, represented by a big delegation on Saturday, are balloting for action. Teachers and nurses began to talk on Sunday about plans to consult about strikes later this year. As Grant says, ‘British workers need a pay rise. In the light of the rising cost of living, we don’t see how a lot of other workers can afford to weather that storm.’
On the railways, train drivers’ union ASLEF has voted for its members to take action on Thursday on Greater Anglia trains and on Sunday on Hull trains, while drivers on Croydon trams will be on strike the following week and in July. Unite and TSSA, which organises some white-collar staff, are also discussing action. In London, RMT members on the tube in London will also be on strike on Tuesday
Finally, Dalbir puts the strike in a bigger context. His partner is a nurse. During the pandemic, when they were regarded as vital workers who kept the country going, they hardly saw each other. ‘We were all told to look after each other and help each other during a global pandemic. These people made laws so we were supposedly protected – and then they broke those laws, so we have a law-breaking prime minister and a law-breaking government. And they don’t care. People’s loved ones died, don’t forget that. We need to fight with every fibre of our being, because working class people deserve a lot better than this.’
*Update: since we did this interview and with strike action about to begin, National Rail have made a pay offer of two percent. The train operating companies (including Northern) have yet to make an offer.