SIGNALLING, maintenance and station staff working for the company that runs the entire rail infrastructure network are to ballot for strikes which could bring the first national rail stoppage for ten years. The 7,000 members of the RMT union on Network Rail were due to begin receiving ballot papers this week for action over pay, pensions and travel facilities. Network Rail has offered a pay rise of just 3 percent-the lowest pay offer in the rail industry.
It also wants to close its final salary pension scheme to anyone joining the company after 1 April this year. "We face a real attack from management just as rail bosses are lining their own pockets further," one RMT member told Socialist Worker.
"And they are allowed access to the media, while we are threatened with bringing the company into disrepute if we speak out. We need a massive yes vote in the ballot and action that bites."
The pensions attack is particularly sharp on Network Rail as thousands of workers are due to transfer to it from contractors such as Carillion and Jarvis over the next few weeks. The far from militant TSSA white collar rail union has also talked up the prospect of strikes on Network Rail.
A third issue in the dispute is travel concessions. None of the 40 percent of workers who joined Network Rail or its predecessor, Railtrack, after 1 April 1996 gets any kind of discount on rail travel. The RMT is fighting for everyone to get the same discounts as the people who joined before that date.
This would cost Network Rail just £12 million. It spends £14 million each day. RMT members on London Underground recently won a major improvement on travel concessions.
Should the Network Rail dispute come to strikes it will pitch the RMT, which has been expelled from the Labour Party, into a major industrial confrontation with the government.
RMT general secretary Bob Crow says, "The company talks about cutting costs, but its directors will top up their six-figure salaries with more fat bonuses for squeezing the pay of the people who actually go out and get the work done. "RMT has drawn a line in the sand, and we are calling on all our Network Rail members to give a decisive message to the company that we will not tolerate a two-tier workforce or a squeeze on pay."
NEARLY 2,000 RMT members on Richard Branson's Virgin Trains company are to ballot for strikes as management refuses to negotiate with the union. The move comes after a series of strikes by train crew based at Virgin's Manchester depot. A hundred catering crew workers held strikes over the imposition of new rosters. Now the wider RMT membership on Virgin's West Coast and cross-country franchises is also set to take action.
The company says it will not discuss pay with union reps while the union remains in dispute over the imposition of new Avantix ticketing machines on guards. RMT assistant general secretary Pat Sikorski says, "There is no earthly reason why Virgin should refuse to negotiate on pay. "And we will be making a strong recommendation to our members to vote for action to bring the company back to the negotiating table."
The union this week forced management to start negotiating over the new ticketing machines. One guard told Socialist Worker, "We've been refusing to use the new machines for the last month because management just imposed them on us without any agreement. From this week we said we'd refuse to take any cash on board Virgin trains. That got management to talk to us like other companies have over this issue."
Midland Mainline recently agreed a one-off payment of £650 to staff for using the new machines.
A BITTER row has erupted in the train drivers' union Aslef as its general secretary tries to steer the union to the right and towards partnership with New Labour. Shaun Brady won the election for general secretary last year on an anti-politics ticket.
But his actions since his election have been far from apolitical. He has tried to position the union, which was firmly part of the "awkward squad" under the previous general secretary Mick Rix, on the right wing of the TUC. "The mark of what Brady is like could be seen when he threatened to derecognise the union staff employed at Aslef headquarters and to sack them all," says one Aslef activist. "Then he commissioned a totally one-sided 'report' into financial procedures under Mick Rix.
"The executive voted five to three not to accept that report, but instead to hold a wider investigation into the administration of the union over the last ten years. That will cover the period when Lew Adams was general secretary. "He now has a top position at the government's Strategic Rail Authority and masterminded Brady's election campaign. The executive has also decided to take over the day to day running of the union until the investigation is completed. Brady responded by going to the press. But the executive's decision is perfectly within the rules of the union. And as for democracy-it is far less democratic for power to lie in the hands of a general secretary than in an executive committee.
But the issue will only really be resolved in the branches and among the membership. It will likely dominate the union's conference in June. There are right wing forces trying to organise in our union. Activists and the left are going to have to take the political issues around this row out to the members and win the arguments against what Brady is trying to do."