By Sam Ord
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Rail strikes—on track for a class battle

This article is over 1 years, 8 months old
Tens of thousands of rail workers are preparing to strike on 21, 23 and 25 of June. The threat of strikes has already terrified the Tories and the bosses.
Issue 2809
rail strikes

Strikes on the rail networks have the Tories and the bosses worried (pic: Guy Smallman)

Rail strikes could bring Britain to a standstill and leave the Tories shaken to their core. Over 50,000 workers are gearing up for battles on the London Underground, Network Rail and 13 train operating companies. The strikes on 21, 23 and 25 of June could pressure the already fragile prime minister Boris Johnson and his divided party. 

They will also show millions of ­workers that it’s possible to fight the cost of living crisis. RMT union members at Network Rail and 13 train operating companies are fighting over pay, jobs and ­working conditions. “I haven’t had a pay rise since before Covid,” said Adam, an onboard caterer for London North Eastern Railway.

“As the trains are getting busier, it’s been tough. There’s a reduction in crew size for us on board. Before Covid most crews were five or six strong, and now the average crews are just four. “The crew and a lot of train managers have said they’re feeling the strain as well. Everyone’s trying their best at the moment, but we’re being stretched thin.”

The three days of stoppages will affect the whole week as workers won’t clock on to overnight shifts that run into the non-strike days. The Tories and bosses claim they must push through the attacks to find £1 billion to £2 billion in annual “savings” to repay subsidies given during the Covid pandemic.

These subsidies should have been grants and adequately distributed into the service, not put in the bosses’ pockets. Around 11,000 RMT and Unite members on the London Underground are set to join the strike on 21 June. 

RMT members have already staged three 24 hour strikes against bosses’ plans to slash 600 jobs, which would make the network less safe. London Underground RMT rep, Phil Rowan told Socialist Worker, “A national rail strike including the Underground is something that’s been spoken about for many years. The last time it happened was 1989. Hopefully it will become more common. 

“It’s important because workers get the sense of unity, and not that it’s one small group of workers fighting alone.  “It emphasises that it’s a worker versus bosses scenario and, in this case, workers versus government, as they control the train operating companies.  “It’s the same for the London Underground. 

“While station staff have shown we can shut the network as we did on 6 June, it’s important when it’s all grades to unite all workers together. “This is why it’s good that Unite—who are mostly engineers, operations and security and network ­management—are also out.” 

The strike will be the largest on the ­railways since 1989. Only a fifth of mainline rail services will be running on strike days, with most of these operating on a significantly restricted timetable.

On Network Rail, the strike involves maintenance and operations workers at rail operating and signalling centres, depots and key stations. Signallers have keep the network running as Britain’s railways rely heavily on track-side signalling. 

The strike is showing signs of growth. The TSSA union is currently balloting to join the dispute, and Aslef has called ballots in a fight for pay at 12 train operating companies.  Already Aslef train drivers on Greater Anglia and Hull Trains plan to strike on 23 and 26 June. 

Although TSSA members won’t be striking, workers on South East Railway have won the commitment that those who refuse to cross the picket line will not be disciplined.  Not crossing picket lines is crucial whether there are agreements on not.

Strikes can close the gap of low pay

The strikes will show the Tories and bosses that workers are sick and tired of low pay, cuts and poor working conditions. But workers must consider what is next. London Underground RMT rep Phil Rowan told Socialist Worker, “The government runs the trains. You don’t beat them by one or two-day strikes. The three individual strike days in effect take the network down for five days, so we need more of that. 

“We must unite the strikes with workers in other unions. Mass strikes are how we beat the bosses.” Sustained strikes will win results. But the leadership of the RMT is reluctant to do this. They say it’s a long process to explain to workers— in a time of economic hardship—that they should strike for longer. But this puts the blame on workers who can be won to fight. 

Workers need more control over their strikes. The strikes cannot be just seen as leverage for negotiation between union officials and the bosses. Rank and file members must pressure the RMT leadership to publish a continuing schedule of action and resistance. 

Already the bosses are worried that action will hit mass events such as the Glastonbury festival, the British Athletics Championships, and gigs in London by Elton John and The Rolling Stones. Tory MP Karl McCartney, told the Telegraph newspaper that unions are “holding the country to ransom”. In truth it’s Tory policy that is holding people to “ransom” by restricting wages and forcing working people into food banks and poverty. 

As pay disputes at Royal Mail, British Airways and BT Group could head towards strikes, the TUC union federation should consider linking action. It would be a massive blow to the Tory Party. Already Uber drivers in the App Drivers and Couriers Union will walk out for 24 hours over pay on the 22 June, coinciding with the rail strike.

Rail cleaners who are outsourced to Churchill will also strike from Thursday of next week until 20 June. Soon after Croydon Tramlink drivers in the Aslef union will walk out on strike for pay from 28 to 29 June and 13 to 14 July. The cost of living crisis is affecting all working class people. 

The crisis is avoidable, but solutions put forward by the Tories aren’t the answer. Workers must build battles for pay and increase demands to renationalise industries, introducing energy price caps and increasing the minimum wage to £15 an hour.

Every socialist, trade unionist and campaigner should build support for the strike and link with the rail workers. Picket lines must be built big. There must be marches, demonstrations against rail bosses and  other militant actions. A rail workers’ victory would put Johnson and his Tory crooks on the ropes. It would show ordinary people that change and resistance are possible.

No freight frightens the Tories

The planned strike has the Tories and bosses trembling. Head of the Rail Freight Group Maggie Simpson said, “The pattern of proposed strike action is about as bad as it gets for rail freight.” Supermarkets will struggle to stock shelves, factories will struggle to gain materials, and fossil fuel companies will struggle to export essential materials and infrastructure. The total freight lifted was 17.6 million tonnes from January to March.

And a significant amount of workers use rail to commute to work, causing staff shortages across the board, especially in London where rail usage is much higher. The bosses that Boris Johnson represents are putting him under immense pressure to squash the strike. A victory for the workers could be the final nail in the coffin for Johnson, so a campaign of scapegoating RMT members has begun.

A Number 10 source said the strike was “thoroughly irresponsible” and warned it would inflict “pain and economic disruption on their fellow citizens in really tough times”. Tories and bosses, not working class people, are to blame for the surge in inflation and the cost of living crisis. The government is refusing to take meaningful action on rising prices and is scapegoating the rail workers.

Boris Johnson has warned of a “wage price spiral” if workers’ pay increases in line with soaring costs. They’re trying to pass the blame onto working class people for high inflation. But wages aren’t to blame for inflation. They have been held down and effectively cut in real terms. Profit and hoarding masses of money are the real culprits. 

Transport secretary Grant Shapps wrote on Twitter, “Very disappointing RMT union are taking action that could damage the rail network after taxpayers contributed £16 billion, £600 per household, to keep jobs during Covid.”

Subsidies given during the Covid pandemic were a massive handout to the bosses to maintain their profits. Workers on the other hand, didn’t see that money as they were subject to pay freezes, and the strike threatens to undo that.

LNER worker Adam told Socialist Worker, “I think on average LNER lose about three million pounds a day if nothing runs—we’re looking at them losing at least nine million during the strike.”

The bosses say because passenger levels aren’t at pre-Covid levels, they simply cannot afford the strike demands. The truth is rail passenger levels are only slightly less and are still growing. Passenger numbers on the London Underground have recovered to their pre-pandemic levels.

There is money to pay the workers what they deserve. Rail industry income in 2020-21 was £20.7 billion, but the bosses will never just hand this out. Privatisation means ticket fares and government subsidies fund the train firms’ profits. Transport should be brought into democratic public ownership.

Bosses signal they want to make sure that profits keep flowing

The right has attacked the strikes, arguing that transport workers don’t deserve good payDaily Mail journalist Andrew Pierce suggested workers get paid £58,000 a week on Twitter, and The Department for Transport says the average rail worker’s salary is £44,000. 

In reality, this doesn’t show the whole picture, with the lowest paid workers in the rail and transport industry paid just £11.50 an hour.  The Tories and the right wing press attack workers by saying they are grossly overpaid compared to nurses and care workers.

This is gross hypocrisy considering Tory MPs are paid double and more than most workers.  The Tories are on the attack because the bosses don’t want to raise pay that would eat away at their profits. Network Rail CEO Andrew Haines pocketed £585,000 a year in February 2021—at the very height of the Covid pandemic. Such payouts wouldn’t be possibile without workers’ sweat and skills.

Rail workers get real terms pay cuts and freezes as the cost of living soars. Many have not had a pay rise for several years. Adam said that with inflation so high low pay is a constant among working class people. He said, “The reason we’ve had it better at times is because we’ve got a good union that strikes and fights for pay rises.” He added it shouldn’t be a race to the bottom— as the Tories want—but other workers should also take action. 

“Consider strikes because it shows your bosses that you are willing to take a stand, and you aren’t going get pushed over,” he said. The Labour Party has shown that it is on the bosses’ side. 

A Labour spokesperson said, “We have been clear in the position  that the strikes shouldn’t go ahead.” Rail workers—like many others—worked and were applauded throughout the Covid pandemic as many got extremely sick or died. 

Now because of the Tories’ failures to contain the virus, workers are being forced to pay for the economic recovery. Fighting for a pay rise is the way to resist this. Adam hopes his and his colleagues’ battle will be an inspiration for other workers to do the same.

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