The fightback is here, and it’s being led by thousands of rail workers who, last week, left the bosses and the Tories shaking. From Aberdeen to Hastings picket lines were packed with dozens of supporters, all offering their support for the strikes.
And big rallies on Saturday brought together activists and workers currently fighting in their own disputes. The strikers have simple demands that have resonated with workers across the country. They want fair pay, safety, and no compulsory redundancies as the Tories’ cost of living crisis begins to bite. For that reason many view the rail strikes as the start of a large-scale fightback against high costs and low pay.
And for many workers, who are also suffering a pinch on their wages and conditions, they will be left with the feeling that they can fight back too. The strikers have been given a boost from massive amounts of support.
“I haven’t seen this much practical support for rail workers ever,” said Andy, a Network Rail worker from east London. He told Socialist Worker, “People offered us food, tea and coffee—some people even asked if they could donate money. Passing buses, taxis, vans and cars are raising their fists out of the window, beeping their horns.
“The amount of support makes us feel ten feet tall.” He added, “Everyone I know talks about the strike, sure we’re going to win and people who have also got low pay or whatever are pinning their hopes on us.
“I think Network Rail chief executive Andrew Hains has been shown up. More people are on the picket lines than I expected. “Winning the strike isn’t a sure thing, but what we have done is shown the government and Hains that they can’t just do what they like with us. We will stand up for our rights. The support the general public has given us has also shown the Tories that next time they try a pay cut or job cut or whatever, we won’t stand for it. They’ll think twice.”
The solidarity from ordinary people will embarrass the Tories, who now have egg on their faces. Hoping to turn people against the rail strikes, they have relentlessly attacked workers, claiming they are overpaid, that they refuse to negotiate and that all are against them. Boris Johnson described the strike as “reckless and wanton”. Transport minister Grant Shapps said the action was “punishing” millions of “innocent people”.
Despite the attacks from the top, hundreds of ordinary people have ignored the lies and joined the picket lines.
Bus drivers delivered food to the pickets in York. In Manchester, Bristol and at Waterloo station in London Extinction Rebellion activists joining workers meant that their time turner flag became a common sight on pickets.
Nearly every picket line received solidarity from local residents, trade unionists and campaigners. Joining pickets boosted the feeling of renewed hope and determination for all that stood with the strikers. And big protests further added to the buoyant mood. Around 200 striking workers outsourced to Mitie at St George’s Hospital in London flooded a tube train as they travelled to the central London RMT rally on Saturday.
As they marched toward the RMT demonstration, they chanted, “One struggle, one fight”. They swelled the demonstration outside Kings Cross to 400.
On Saturday, the last day of strikes, hundreds of people marched through Glasgow city centre to the picket line at Glasgow Central station. Protesters chanted, “The workers united will never be defeated.”
They were joined by trade unionists and the FBU union, who brought a fire engine wrapped in flags. Around 300 people rallied at Liverpool Lime Street, with every speaker mentioning the importance of solidarity and the growing confidence in the trade union movement.
Many said that workers must take action together across different industries. A banner summarised the mood. It read, “Victory to the rail workers. Their fight is our fight.”
Around 400 rallied in Bristol, with 200 in Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham. Many more rallies were held across Britain. A delegation of RMT volunteers at the Glastonbury music festival received support from festival-goers despite the media claiming the strike would “cause chaos” to them.
The torrent of support for rail strikers has meant even Labour MPs have been willing to break ranks. Despite Keir Starmer telling his MPs to avoid the picket lines, some have ignored his advice and shown solidarity anyway.
Many socialist organisations, labour campaigners and Labour Party branches have also given practical solidarity to the workers.
Supporters poured onto picket lines to show resistance to the Tory party as an increasing number of people are skipping meals, failing to pay bills and falling into debt. So there’s a good reason workers across every industry in Britain identified sharply with the strikes.
Train worker Darren from London told Socialist Worker, “Initially we thought this would just be a normal industrial dispute. The actions of Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps have made it completely political. We are seeing a positive response from the public. Despite the inconvenience, passengers are supportive of the movement.”
Darren put this down to all working class people struggling to afford the basics. Adam, a striking LNER worker from Northumbria, told Socialist Worker, “Public support has gone beyond expectations. People understand that everyone’s struggling.
“It’s not just about individual groups. Pay and conditions are low for everyone, and they support us because there’s a lack of faith in the government, and they don’t believe the media.”
Strikes have the power to transform the rail networks into one that puts the safety of customers and workers first.
“Safety is the most important thing,” Greater Anglia train worker Marvin told Socialist Worker. Marie, also a striking rail worker in Greater Anglia, agreed and said, “I think the bosses put money above safety.” As the workers walked out, scab workers dangerously put trains on the wrong routes.
A reliance on inexperienced agency workers, jobs cut and overworked and unpaid staff is a recipe for a tragedy. Striking worker, Luca added, “Gate staff who could face job losses are the first point of contact for passengers. If a wheelchair user enters, we take care of them and make them comfortable. If station staff are made redundant, mothers with babies, people who are blind or elderly will get turned off train travel. It’s unsafe without staff.”
Luca and Marie said safety shouldn’t be understated and that it was important for their union leaders to keep talking about it. Luca is a new worker, but two weeks ago, he experienced “young people run across the tracks without looking”.
“If we weren’t there no one would have been able to report the incident,” he said. Dan, a Network Rail worker from Coventry, said, “If bosses get what they want on changes to maintenance schedules, yearly safety inspections will happen only every two years.”
“The media have gone too far, and people are seeing right through the bullshit” said striker Andy. Maria added, “A few people believe the media and think we all get paid £44,000—it’s a big lie.”
Some rail workers believe this is why an above inflation pay rise of at least 11.7 percent isn’t being demanded by general secretary Mick Lynch and other RMT leaders. Leading figures have repeatedly said 7 percent is fair. But this is far below the rate of inflation and is a real term pay cut.
Marie said, “ Of course 7 percent is better than what we’ve got now. I think 11.7 percent would be nice, and I think that’s reasonable.” Luca added, “We definitely need a pay rise higher than inflation. Just 7 percent is not enough. It won’t make a difference.”
A new poll by Opinium found that 70 percent of people support inflation level pay rises, with 84 percent agreeing that rail profits should be reinvested into maintaining staff. All workers who are suffering rising costs are watching the RMT pay dispute. A win for rail workers would boost the confidence of other workers to mount a fight back.
Luca told Socialist Worker that this had been apparent on the picket line. “One woman gave us muffins and simply said, ‘please keep fighting.’ “It makes us feel special. People are watching us, and we are a guide for people who see us. We might be inspiring them to also take action.”
An above inflation pay rise is a possibility. Bus drivers employed by Stagecoach in Worthing won a 15.8 percent pay rise. And other bus drivers, lorry drivers and more have also recently won pay deals of up to 25 percent.
With rail companies pocketing an average of £500 million a year, there is plenty of money to give workers an inflation beating deal.
The strike is showing signs of spreading. The train drivers union Aslef, was set to ballot its workers at 13 train operating companies. And Aslef members on south London trams were set to strike for 48 hours from Tuesday of this week and 13 July.
Rail workers in the TSSA union are also balloting on Network Rail and nine train operating companies. And 10,000 London underground workers in the RMT voted again to strike over job cuts and pension changes.
This mood to organise and fight back has spread to other industries. The TUC union grouping said Google searches for “join union” surged by nearly 200 percent last week. And some 640 people joined the PCS union in the space of a week. The rail workers have been an inspiration to every worker who has dealt with Covid, cuts, high prices and low pay.
A win would be a blow for the Tory party and their crooked agenda. But for this more action is desperately needed. The RMT must escalate strikes. The fight for our lives is on. Backing down now would serve a blow to all workers and serve the Tories and the bosses precisely what they want.
Class struggle toppled apartheid