By Pete Whitelegg
Back in April of this year Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) called an all member zoom meeting with members of the NEC. The message was a simple one, they are coming for us. Mick Lynch outlined what he had been told by the TOCs (Train Operating Companies) and Network Rail. Massive job losses throughout the industry, collective bargaining agreements torn up, all booking offices to be closed, wholesale changes to the safety and maintenance regimes. In short, a hollowing out of the rail industry as a public service. For the first time since 1985 all rail workers in England would be balloted on industrial action (Rail workers in Wales and Scotland would not be balloted as rail there is currently run by the devolved authorities). Moreover, we were informed the employers were proposing major changes to the railway pension scheme. Massive increases in contributions and severe cutbacks in benefits.
Because of privatisation our railways are a complicated industry and organising a strike across all companies and sectors is a difficult and complicated business. The initial ballot covered 16 Tocs and Network Rail. The Tocs are the companies that run the rail services with Network Rail running and maintaining the infrastructure. The ballot did not include the open rail carriers, Hull trains and Grand Central. The ballot was conducted with about 42,000 RMT members which is about half the union’s membership. Running alongside these ballots were separate disputes in London involving London Underground and now London Overground. The issues with all these disputes are essentially the same.
If you only listened to Grant Shapps you would be under the impression that this industrial action was simply about greedy rail workers holding the travelling public to ransom. Pay is clearly an issue. Many rail workers did not get a pay rise at all during the covid pandemic. That’s two years with no increase in basic pay. With covid came lockdown and a reduction in passenger travel of between 70 to 80%, and with this a complete collapse in revenue for the private rail companies. Clearly it was necessary to maintain the rail network in working order, particularly for essential workers, and those not able to work from home. This required the government to cover the costs of the private rail companies. Instead of the private rail companies being put on temporary management contracts, these companies were simply paid as if the rail was running at pre-pandemic levels. No loss of earnings with maintained profits.
In London, the fate of Transport for London was significantly different. Tfl is a statutory body of the Greater London Authority, and is run by the London Mayor, currently Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan. But unlike the private rail companies, Tfl was only offered a mixture of loans and grants, most of which will have to be paid back. Tfl is now loaded with debt because of a set of circumstances that were completely beyond its control.
With the end of covid and travel restrictions removed, passenger numbers have begun to recover, as have revenues. The government is now intent on significantly reducing the cost of running the railways. The trigger for this new government agenda is a fundamental change in the way the railways are funded and run. Under the franchise model companies bid for the right to run parts of the railways. The theory was, once the franchise was awarded the government would always get its money. The private rail companies took the risk, subsidies would be reduced to nothing and the private rail companies would invest to create an efficient rail system. It never really happened.
In fact, the reality is the rail system was never fully privatised. All the infrastructure remained in state hands. The only component that could be said to be fully privatised were the rollingstock companies. For the most part the railways were run as a rentier system. All the major investment decisions and strategy were undertaken by government. This system has now collapsed and has been replaced by management contracts. Essentially all the pre-existing Tocs instead of bidding for franchises have been awarded management contracts by the Department of Transport. These contacts set out the conditions and responsibilities of the rail operators. But it also means that any reduction in revenues or increase in costs is passed directly to the government, and ultimately, the tax payer. It also ensures the private rail operators guaranteed profits.
This is largely the background to the strike. The so-called modernisation agenda is nothing of the sort. They are, as I stated earlier, a hollowing out of our rail industry. The current proposals are for thousands of job losses on top of the unprecedented number of job vacancies. Much of the rail network has had a recruitment ban for several years. On London Overground a recruitment ban has been in place for nearly four years. The complete closure of all national rail booking offices, with staff either being made redundant or redeployed. The employers have made it clear that all collective bargaining agreements will be torn up preventing the union and its members from negotiating on items such as rosters, pay, working hours and work life balance. They will rip up agreed working practices, placing Sunday automatically within the working week with no compensation.
Accompanying this will be the introduction of monitoring apps and digital technology with all staff becoming multi-functional across all grades and across multiple sites. Staff will no longer have a place of work. The app will inform you of your duties and at which site to attend. Essentially all staff will become casual workers. Casualisation is already rampant within the rail industry. Most cleaners are longer employed by the rail companies but are instead under contract to major outsourcing companies. On London Overground in London, some 50 to 75% of the staff you see at any station are almost certainly agency workers, most on zero hours contracts.
Even within the management grades there are advanced plans to use AI and digital technologies to strip out admin, management and support roles.
Network Rail plan some 400 million of cash savings, so far, they have identified 270 million with a further 130 million to come from signals and rail controllers, all safety critical functions.
In the maintenance section alone, they want 100million of savings with the intention of moving towards a risk-based maintenance regime rather than the much safer planned preventative regime currently in operation. This means instead of seeking out faults and issues and correcting them before they become a serious issue and interfere with the rail service. A risk-based system is take a risk or wait until it breaks and only then intervene. This process is designed to reduce the planned maintenance by 50%. Just in maintenance this could see the removal of some 2000 current vacancies and a further 2,500 skilled engineers.
These engineers will then be replaced by only 1050 assistant technician roles on much lower pay and considerably reduced terms and conditions. In fact the wages may be as low as £21,000 and they will have to provide their own transport.
These rail strikes are not solely about pay. Mick Lynch, RMT General Secretary, has said on many occasions that pay is at the bottom of the issues that are to be discussed. At the top are the ability of workers in any industry to have a say in the industry they work in. The right to a work life balance and a job that is not constantly under threat, together with a decent wage and benefits.