Who can stop the RMT strike madness? Railfuture’s Policy Director comments on the failure of the RMT union and the government to reach a settlement that enables a successful, viable future for rail. Strike day at Paddington – trains going nowhere.
Railfuture wants a bigger better railway in Britain, playing its full part in delivering transport, environmental and social objectives for the country. There has never been a better time to invest in the future of our railways, as we hopefully emerge from COVID and Russian aggression becomes self defeating.
These two factors have hit our economy and our railways but until the now regular programme of rail strikes there had been clear signs of recovery in passenger numbers. This recovery is now on hold - our railways are a national embarrassment and on the verge of collapse both physically and in terms of customer and stakeholder confidence. The comparison with Ukrainian railways is stark... the difference is that railway employees there want their railway and their country to survive. These forces are not so apparent here, except at individual employee level.
What is fair?
Inflation is a common enemy and people act in different ways. Governments want to stop inflation by holding down wage increases, and increasing interest rates and taxes. The arguments generally rage on what measure is the least unfair to segments of our society. If everyone got the same pay increase to match inflation the result would be neutral but the increase would cause, and be neutralised by, further inflation.
Unfortunately pay is not always equitable, as many segments are poorly paid whereas rail staff generally are in the top quartile of public sector pay, ie they are paid more than most people in comparable jobs. This would suggest that, in a fair society, the largest pay increases should go to those who most need assistance, not necessarily to those with the most power to disrupt our lives, as we are seeing on the railways.
Nevertheless our rail staff should be paid a fair wage for productive employment in delivering the rail service. Although the relative pay argument is weak rail staff will naturally want to make up for erosion of pay. Historically the trend has been for pay increases to keep up with inflation plus a real element designed to improve standard of living. The question is what is fair and what is affordable?
With inflation currently around 11% and in some cases no increases for rail staff for two years, it is not surprising that there is a problem.
A structure for effective negotiation
If we had effective government sponsorship of the railways, a coherent management structure with bottom line responsibilities and incentives and trade unions focused on pay and condition benefits for the industry, then despite the inflation background we would not have a situation potentially destroying our railway. Like Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” everybody did it. Not one of these players has demonstrated “fit for purpose” leadership.
The structure of our railways was planned to change, under a single unified control....Great British Railways. This has run into the sand and the idea is even being questioned as people lose interest. Network Rail is a unified body and it is owned by the public sector. In fact Network Rail has made the most consistent offer to the RMT, within the limitations of government funding. The pot of money was recently announced for the next Control Period so choices are available on more pay versus cutbacks to service level (and therefore jobs) and the investment programme.
There should be a properly negotiated solution for Network Rail staff. Productivity or flexibility should be part of this so, if properly negotiated, improving pay, conditions and work life balance.
The situation with the Train Operating Companies – the TOCs - is more political, more difficult. Many were branded as bus bandits, but more recently the TOC scene is dominated by overseas railways. Our own railway was not allowed to compete, resulting in limited open access services where in some cases the focus has been on passengers and freight customers, and pay and conditions more directly related to service provision. The result has been better conditions and better work life balance for employees.
Franchises were replaced by service contracts during COVID so organisations paying huge surpluses to shareholders should not happen. It does still happen and the fact that it does so is bad sponsorship by government of these arrangements. As the RMT insist, there is little point in negotiation with the TOCs or the Rail Delivery Group (the TOC grouping) if everything is passed back to the Department for Transport without any face to face contact. The disputes will not be resolved at the TOC level whilst this situation remains. The Network Rail dispute should however.
So who is the guiding mind?
DfT civil servants, the Transport Select Committee, or the Secretary of State for Transport? All these have a role but they are not management with direct bottom line control of the rail industry. That is the problem.
The RMT have always, since privatisation, demanded collective bargaining. They have achieved that objective in the form of dialogue with a capable Secretary of Transport, Mark Harper, albeit devoid of any coherent structure to implement what is agreed effectively. I could not say this about an earlier Secretary of State, Grant Shapps, who mismanaged this situation at the start of the current series of disputes. In fact Mick Lynch, RMT’s General Secretary, is now on a roll with this, demanding but failing to elevate the dialogue to the level of Prime Minister. It is clear that GBR must happen and must include an effective way of dealing with what are in effect, real issues - the management and direction of the rail industry.
Mick Lynch is an effective communicator, in fact almost the only communicator capable of fending off the media, but what is the end game? Some people describe this as erection of a statue of Lenin on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. We are not there. The RMT is however in control of the dialogue and to an extent, in control of the rail industry. This is particularly evident on resisting productivity initiatives such as quoting the old safety chestnut – that the railway is not safe (despite being the safest in the world.) However, trying to implement productivity by overnight e-mail is not likely to get a result. In this scenario where nobody communicates effectively what is fact and what is not becomes irrelevant. It is a long time since the fireman put coal in the engine and the guard had to see all slam doors shut on a train - over 50 years!
The RMT game plan
The RMT militancy is as a result of these circumstances coming together, not any particular change in its historically left wing Executive Committee, democratically elected from within the membership. A railway run by the RMT is not sustainable as it would pay itself more, resist productivity and importantly cease to attract government funding so would close down. This does not mean that the current arrangements are sustainable either of course. Waitrose/John Lewis is a much larger organisation than Network Rail with 60,000 employees and it is employee owned, trading profitably, with everybody focused on customers and the supply chain. On the railways at present nobody is focused on the customers. Passengers who are just fodder being attacked daily by a railway not fit for purpose. Why attack the passengers on a daily basis? Answer –the TOCs are largely indemnified against turning away business so the passengers become the focus. The hope is that the passengers will revolt, the reality is that they will walk. Not a good strategy.
So the RMT think they have the muscle for a big pay rise in a world where the client side, except for Network Rail, is not organised and the passengers do not matter. The fact that RMT have not settled with Network Rail suggests other forces such as union control are in play. A union working on behalf of its members would settle with Network Rail, even if the occasional TOC goes to the wall over the coming months.
The RMT have moved on from making passengers suffer to attacking the economy, such as the night time economy and Christmas economy of our cities. They will lose the sympathy vote as most people affected are paid less and many do not have stable contracts. Taking this a step further and attacking Network Rail’s £120m Christmas project/renewals programme is indefensible sabotage of the railway industry and its future.
So if we discount trashing the rail industry, its future and the economy that it serves, let us revert to the question - can it be stopped? Rationally it should but who will stop it?
The RMT has gone past the point of no return in terms of a credible exit strategy from the disputes.
What about rail employees? They too have been sidelined and in some cases pay offers are not even referred to them. Not good, particularly if employees see pay increases on offer but receive pay deductions over Christmas.
Let’s do the sums
10 days’ strikes over Christmas represents a 4% annual pay deduction for rail employees. Taking Network Rail’s example the 10 days’ strikes might gain, say, a maximum of a further 2%. A 10 day strike to gain a net minus 2% pay improvement over what is on offer is not very clever. In fact it suggests that it is not about pay as far as the RMT leadership is concerned.
This equates to a minus 0.4% pay deduction for each strike day. Not much of a deal if the overall figure is capped as any final settlement will not be more than inflation.
Who can stop this madness?
Well the employees of course, the people who suffer disproportionally in terms of pay and career prospects.
It is difficult to see how the RMT comes out of this credibly after people start to think what is happening. Declarations of RMT victory are unlikely to wash.
Worse than this, actively facilitating a Tory government in implementing legislation to curb the effect of rail strikes will probably go down in history as the biggest own goal in railway trade union history. Not good when we consider the many benefits of trade unionism over our industrial history.
RMT members rebel against Mick Lynch over train strike pay offer
DfT playing hardball. The ball is now in RMT’s court to offer something on productivity.