By Kevin Ovenden
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Biggest strike for a decade on the rail

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Thousands of rail and tube workers are set to walk out over pensions and long hours
Issue 1907

RAIL AND London Underground workers are set to stage a one-day strike, called by their RMT union. Over 7,500 signallers, station staff and maintenance workers at rail infrastructure company Network Rail are due to strike for 24 hours from 6.30pm on Tuesday.

They are to be joined by a similar number of RMT members working on the tube. The issues in both strikes will be familiar to workers across industry. Network Rail, whose bosses have granted themselves £350,000 in bonuses this year despite worsening train delays, wants to close its final salary pension scheme. “We all know that’s a prelude to scrapping the scheme altogether,” says one Network Rail worker. Like other workers, we are taking a stand for ourselves and future generations.”

The result of the RMT’s recent ballot on Network Rail forced the company to negotiate over its measly pay offer. “But on pensions”, says RMT general secretary Bob Crow, “they have simply sat with their arms folded.

“The RMT negotiating team has made several positive and flexible offers-including moving this year’s pay anniversary date and forgoing a proportion of this year’s bonuses-in order to keep the final salary pension scheme open, but the company has refused to listen to them.

“Closing the pension scheme has become pure dogma-it would cost £4 million to keep the fund open this year, but the bonuses will cost £16 million.” The rail workers’ pension scheme dates from the time before privatisation in 1996. Hundreds of thousands of rail workers have paid into it for decades.

That makes it a honey pot for the privatised firms now running the rail industry, which each got a slice of the fund when the industry was broken up. “Everyone should get behind the Network Rail workers,” says Unjum Mirza of the RMT’s London Transport Region. We took part in the TUC’s march over pensions last Saturday, and there were many fine words about protecting pensions in the private and public sectors. Now a big group of workers is prepared to strike over the issue, to the benefit of all of us. The whole trade union movement should back them.”

The Network Rail action is timed to coincide with a strike on the tube by workers who have voted by four to one for strikes over pay, working hours and conditions.

The RMT suspended a strike called for 10 June in order to hold talks with London Underground and Metronet, the private consortium that now runs part of the tube’s infrastructure under New Labour’s privatisation. Neither company has moved. RMT activists on the tube report a strong mood for action among both drivers and station staff, who have been promised a cut in working hours for years.

The union is asking for a date when a long-promised 35-hour week will be implemented, and a date for the start of a four-day week. These are the kind of arrangements the government says are part of its family-friendly policy on working hours. But instead of ending a long hours culture, London Underground management is looking to make hundreds of job losses and hold down pay.

Every worker in Britain has an interest in seeing both groups of workers win, and not only because pensions and working hours affect everyone. The RMT has taken a pioneering stand over campaigning for a left wing political alternative to Labour. Government ministers would dearly love to humiliate the union.

A victory for rail and tube workers would be significant blow against the government’s assault on the unions.

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