Working Conditions: the Case of the Railways

Working conditions: the case of the railways

Eamon Dyas

In its report on the recent pay offer to the railway workers (link below) the BBC acts as the public relations department of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) in the way it frames the offer.

Not only is the 4% on offer miserly in itself but it is made conditional on the rail unions accepting the wholesale erosion of existing working conditions. This tendency on the part of employers to make pay offers conditional on the acceptance of an erosion of long-held working conditions has been a feature of industrial relations negotiations for many years now. We have yet to witness an instance when employers offer improved working conditions as part of such negotiations. Improvements in working conditions are almost exclusively the result of trade union actions and campaigns.

Successful trade union actions that result in improvements in pay and conditions act as an example and provide a benchmark for the wider workforce and trade unions have traditionally viewed negotiations leading to such improvements in that context. A win for one is a win for all and as such these kind of concessions are instinctively resisted by employers. Employers also know that, faced with a determined and organised workforce, they usually have to make concessions to bring industrial actions to a close – at least they would if left to their own devices which because of government interference does not appear to be the case in the current rail dispute. However, all things being equal that is usually the case. And what is also usually the case is that employers would prefer to concede on pay than on conditions. Because of this, negotiations normally take place against a backdrop of an employer strategy that seeks to concentrate on what may prove attractive to the individual employee in terms of pay but also involves a dissolution of conditions.

In this way the attraction of an individual worker’s improved take-home pay is couched in a surrounding package that not only ensures that the improved pay offer pays for itself (or at least goes a long way in paying for itself) but erodes the legacy of the collective concept of the worker as expressed in the trade union’s capacity to generate improvement in the shared working conditions of employees. This is undoubtedly a component of what is behind the thinking of the government and the RDG in the manner in which it lays out the working conditions concessions it demands as part of the miserly 4% pay offer. See for example the demand that the unions agree to “part-time and flexible working” – an arrangement by which workers would be expected to come to their own arrangements for working patterns separate from the work-rosters previously agreed through the collective input of the trade unions.

But, of course this is not how it is presented by the media. The reality is that modern corporate employers view industrial disputes not only as a temporary problem but also as an opportunity to impose new (and to them, more profitable) working conditions on the workforce – Murdoch’s handling of the 1986 print workers dispute was an early and dramatic example of this thinking. Large employers can afford to think this way because they are not exclusively reliant on the income that is generated from a single business entity but rather have access to different revenue streams or because they have the backing of the Government, or both. However, unlike Murdoch and the print workers dispute, the private sector companies that operate the railways are supposed to be supplying a public service and as such they have to explain themselves not only to their shareholders but to the travelling public. It is here that the media performs an important role.

The culpability of both the Government and the RDG in the creation of the current discomfort experienced by the rail traveling public needs to be disguised as something that somehow is in their long-term interest. Pain now, gain later. In that regard the travelling public need to be kept “informed” of why the employers are acting as they are and why, in acting as they are, they are acting in the travelling public’s long-term interest. By now, almost thirty years since the railways began to be de-nationalised, the abject failure of that experiment has well and truly become obvious in the majority of the travelling public which makes it criminally obscene that Labour is not pushing for a complete re-nationalisation of this essential service. But the extent of that failure cannot be admitted and so there continues to be the need to hold out the prospect of an improvement within the current set-up. 

It is in that context that the RDG and all the other business cohorts that operate the rail system and generate their profits from it make the claim that it is the existence of archaic working conditions that is standing in the way of a better rail service. If only the unions concede on working conditions it will lead to an improved service. But the spurious nature of that equation between the dissolution of rail employee’s working conditions and an improved service has, like the promise held out by the privatisation of the network nearly thirty years ago, been entirely discredited by experience. How many rounds of industrial negotiations in the rail industry since the time it was taken out of public ownership has resulted in some working conditions concession or other on the part of the unions and yet it resulted in no or little improvement. An example is my own service, South-East Rail, but it applies to one extent or another to all the commuter-serving rail companies. They all operate to a fare structure that is among the most expensive in Europe and they have all become a byword for unreliable services everywhere in the London region. Yet all of them, as far as I know, operate driver-only trains and have done so for many, many years with that concession at the time being also dressed up with the promise that such arrangements at the time would lead to some alleviation of the conditions experienced by the London travelling public. Similarly, the radical drop or complete removal of station staff that had previously been demanded. Again, that was something that was heralded at the time as a key that would open the lock to a better service and again there was no such tangible gain for the public. In fact, quite the opposite.

All this shows that the current repetition of the same claim should be treated with a high level of scepticism by the travelling public. After all these years and all these rounds of concessions on working conditions by the trade unions, experience has shown that a dilution in these working conditions does not equate with an improved level of service. What it does equate to is better margins on the books of the private rail companies. In the face of all this, the fact that the RDG continues to make the claim that more driver-only trains will lead to better services shows that they are aware of the falsity of that claim and are cynically using it to conceal what is simply another means by which they can improve their profitability while at the same time eroding the bedrock on which trade unions continue to have a claim on worker loyalty – the legacy of their role in creating improvements in working conditions.

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