(The image above is by water colour artist Inga Bystram)
Transport Committee meetings 11/1/23
The three witnesses are Mick Lynch (RMT), Mick Whelan (ASLEF) and Frank Ward (TSSA). One of the Committee members is the SNP Gavin Newlands, whose later intervention in the House of Commons we quote below.
[There have been three different ministers for transport and ministers of state for rail so far during the rail dispute. The question to the trade union leaders was: was there a difference in approach between the different teams?]
Mick Lynch: I believe this whole situation—the dispute and all the elements of it—have been conceived in the DFT, going back to when Mr Heaton-Harris was the Rail Minister under Mr Shapps. This is Mr Shapps’s project, if you like. This dispute is his bequest to the rest of us. We all have to deal with it. I believe he is still involved quite heavily. When the documents go round Whitehall, I think there is a steer from the Business Department, and that is fine.
Mr Harper and Mr Merriman are very pleasant to deal with. I think we would all say we have a much better relationship on a one-to-one basis. Dealing with the employers, it is a much better relationship, but I always say it is about product. The template has been set by previous Administrations in the DFT. There is a strong hand of the Treasury on top of all of that, about what is going on. They say to us directly that they cannot move very far on this—the merits of our dispute—because of what it will say about health, education and every other public servant involved with all the issues going on now.
You can tell it is, because we have made a settlement in ScotRail. We have all made settlements in Transport for Wales. Merseyrail is outside their bounds, and we have a settlement. Tyne and Wear Metro is outside the DFT and there are settlements. London Transport: settlements. Everywhere that the DFT’s hand is not on the tiller we have made settlements in this industry. We have made them in the private sector. As far as I am concerned, we still deal with private engineering companies, even cleaning contractors, bus companies and ferry companies. All sorts of people in transport make settlements with our unions apart from those directly controlled by the DFT.
It is in the contract. The service contract that they have with the Department for Transport gives the Secretary of State ultimate power in the negotiating room, even though he is not there. The entire project is a conception of the DFT.
[On the minimum service level legislation]
Mick Lynch: It tickles me that they will put non-qualified people into signal boxes to break strikes and they will have safety incidents, which they have every time they have a strike, when managers break the rules and break their competency basis, but it is the unions that are endangering safety. It is the attempt to break the strikes that imports more danger than anything else.
It is an infringement of civil liberties. The right to strike is something that any democratic society will have. If they want to run the signalling system on Network Rail during a dispute in the way that they will, they will have to get all the signallers to work. They will command them and conscript them to work. If they were doing that in Putin’s Russia, in Iran or China it would rightly be condemned. Conscripted workers going to work against their will is an outrage, and that is what this legislation will bring forward—that either we would name them, or the companies would name them. Even the Secretary of State may name individuals who have to go to work on strike days. I do not understand how that is democratic and free in a free society. We will have to challenge it in every way that we can. It will have to be repealed as soon as there is a change in Government.
Gavin Newlands: I have a very brief last question before we move on. If you were to have the Secretary of State or the Rail Minister in front of you, what is the one thing you would need from them to advance this situation?
Mick Whelan: I think we would be consistent in saying that it is only the Government or the Rail Minister who can take the shackles off the employers in the negotiations. I previously reported to you that we were stunned when we found out that our employers had signed a deal with the Government where they could not offer more than 2% in pay. We never even got offered the 2% in the last four years. Constricting free collective bargaining and then indenturing people if they dare to have a voice in it later on is a very difficult direction for any society.
Gavin Newlands: Do any of you differ from that view? Frank Ward: No.
Mick Lynch: No, not really.
Frank Ward: The employers need to be free to negotiate. At this moment they are not.
[Question: why are the department for transport hindering the resolution of the dispute?]
Mike Amesbury: Singling out the DFT—essentially the Secretary of State—if the process is hardwired into the system and the buck lies with them, what is the motivation? What do they need to do to ensure that there is a compromise, a win-win solution and a resolution to this dispute? What steps do they need to take, and why on earth are they driving it? What is your assessment of the motivation?
Mick Lynch: The DFT are not free actors themselves. The Treasury has always run this dispute, whether or not it was Mr Sunak in his previous incarnation. There are spending limits and all the rest of it. They decided to defund the railway by £2 billion, plus £2 billion in London Transport. We have loads of problems over there that have been slightly hidden by the national dispute. The defunding of the railway system in general is at the bottom of this.
I believe there is an attempt to defund a lot of services. That is what is at the heart of all the public sector disputes at the moment. They are not funded properly, and people are not paid properly. People are getting poorer every week. I believe that is a deliberate policy to transfer wealth from working people to people who have already got money. It is all part of a game that is being played in front of us. This is how it plays out in detail. That is their motivation.
Mike Amesbury: Frank?
Frank Ward: I have nothing to add beyond what I said earlier. I think the whole thing has been choreographed in order to allow what happened yesterday, for the Business Secretary to stand up and say, “I’m going to clamp down on trade unions.” That is the motivation.
Mike Amesbury: Does anybody want to add anything?
Mick Whelan: It does appear ideological. I hear stories from the Government about wanting skilled, high-paid workers, and then their activities across all sectors—not just the rail sector—seem to want to challenge vocational people and all the people with skills and keep them down. There was the fact that we had not had a pay rise for four years. We were not seeking a pay rise for the two years of the pandemic; we only went to Mr Heaton-Harris when inflation started going through the roof and when it hit 5.2%. If our members were demanding a pay rise, not having had one for the previous two years, when inflation was 5.2%, how do they feel when they find inflation going to 14% last year, into massive double digits, and possibly going higher than 14% this year?
How could any trade union sell the idea to anybody they represent that 4% and 4% for every condition that we have ever had—because that is what the current deal does—means a 20% pay cut in real terms for no future and no say about what you can do in the future? I do not understand it.
- Frank Ward: Clearly, if there is uncertainty about the service it will drive people away. There has always been uncertainty about the service in the railway in recent years, for different reasons, but Mr Lynch is right; it is the policies of this Government that are creating that uncertainty. This dispute has been prosecuted by the Department for Transport. They are making this happen. If they took their hands off the tiller as far as the employers were concerned and allowed them to negotiate in good faith, we could find resolutions to this. They will not do that, and the employers cannot negotiate with us in good faith because any attempt on their part to do so will effectively mean that they will not be compensated for the loss of revenue or the fall in profits that they are going to sustain going forward.
It is notable that despite the fact that we have come through covid, with all the emergency arrangements and agreements that were put in place, all the companies that came under that managed to make profits. They managed to pay dividends to their shareholders. They never gave pay increases to their workers. Now we are in a situation where the Government are saying they have to cut back expenditure on the railway. Their answer is, “Let’s get the workers to pay for it.” This is political. This is not industrial.
[Question: has the government not spent money on the railways?]
Jack Brereton: But do you recognise that the Government are putting more money into the railway?
Mick Lynch: The Government are putting money into it. They will probably all have to put money into it. I would ask why they put money into the railway and allow rolling stock companies, train operating companies and Network Rail subcontractors to extract billions of pounds of profit since the 1990s straight into people’s pockets through dividends.
You will do the same with health and all the rest of it eventually, when you get the opportunity. You will fund them, but you will shovel it into the private sector. That is what you have been doing. They made profit every day during the pandemic, and they have made profit on every day of these strikes. They get protected against the loss of revenue, and their bottom line has not been affected. Two of the companies are subject to takeovers by speculators. One of them has been taken over during this dispute. There is loads of money in the railway. It is being made by private sector operators. Get Porterbrook and all of them down here, and ask them what they have done with all the money. You have funded that completely.
[Question on the popularity of the strikes]
Mick Lynch: It depends on which poll you read. I went on “Good Morning Britain” the other day, where Richard Madeley was in attack mode. They did a poll shortly after that and there was 75% support for the RMT, so it depends on which poll you read as to who is winning this.
What was expected in the DFT was that we would have zero support and would be back to work with no strikes by the end of June. Once your friends in the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and all those other journals followed me from my house to the station, invaded my children’s Facebook pages and all the rest of it, they thought we would be public enemy No. 1. We are not. I am a more popular person than many of the politicians in this room, unfortunately, for the public.
The fact is that we have a lot of support. It is difficult to get support during industrial disputes. If you ask the public whether they sympathise with people getting a decent pay rise and the protection of contracts of employment and conditions, they will say yes. It is difficult to keep that support going fully during intense industrial action, but there is broad support for all the people involved in disputes at this time. There is very little support for the people who are opposing the disputes and trying to make people poorer.
Gavin Newlands SNP speaking in the House of Commons 19/1/23:
Cross-border rail services run by Avanti and TransPennine Express have been shambolic. Last week alone, TransPennine Express could not point to a single day when it ran the emergency timetable it had promised. On two days, Avanti had only one and two trains on time the entire day running out of Glasgow Central. In contrast, publicly-owned LNER was running a much better service. Is there not a lesson here that the private sector model has failed both workers and passengers and it is time to follow Scotland’s lead and bring rail operators under public control?
ScotRail, which is publicly owned and controlled, pays the highest track access charges of any single rail operator, despite repeated requests to complete rail devolution and transfer control of Network Rail to Holyrood. Meanwhile, the Transport Committee heard last week from Mick Lynch, who said:
“When there is a Network Rail strike, they shut Scotland and large parts of Wales. They choose to run the parts that connect to England.”
Does the Minister agree that Scottish rail passengers get a second-class service in this UK system? Is it not time that he turned over responsibilities to a Government who have recently settled two rail disputes?