Around 20,000 rail workers walked out on Thursday in the first of three strikes in their long-running dispute over pay, working conditions and jobs. The RMT union members at 14 train operating companies mounted picket lines outside stations across Britain.
Laura, an RMT member, is picketing at York railway station. “People are determined to show that we’re going to keep turning out,” she told Socialist Worker. “It can be difficult not to get disheartened when it feels like not much progress is being made, when the government is not interested in making progress.
“The companies are doing what Network Rail did—while we’re still in dispute, they’re pressing ahead with the changes anyway. But people are angry about that.”
As if a 5 percent pay “rise” for 2022-23 wasn’t insulting enough, the Tories and bosses want to tie a pay increase in 2023-24 to restructuring—attacks on jobs, terms and conditions. They announced a sham “consultation” last week to shut hundreds of ticket offices across Britain.
Laura said it feels like the Tories are “quite happy to just carry on wrecking things until they get kicked out” at the next general election. She slammed the “ridiculous anti-strike laws” that mean “we need to keep renewing our mandate” in ballots every six months.
“It’s important to use as much of the current mandate,” she said. “If more strikes are announced, I think people will want to come out again.
In Newcastle some 20 people joined the picket line. Jack, an RMT member picketing outside Newcastle, told Socialist Worker, “The spirits are high—everyone is feeling good on the picket lines.
“Public support is strong—we’ve had lots of toots—and Aslef union train drivers have come down to show support.”
On some picket lines, workers are thinking about the way forward. Jack said, “I think we need more cooperation between the RMT and Aslef, coming out together for longer periods. We could hit more prime days, for example, we’ve got the Edinburgh fringe coming up.
He said that “the unions could do a week between them” and, because of the way rosters are organised, workers would only lose around three days pay each. He argued that option could do the “least damage to workers and most disruption” to bosses.
The RMT members plan further walkouts this Saturday and Saturday of next week. Aslef train drivers’ union members began a week-long overtime ban at 16 companies on Monday as part of their long-running dispute over pay.
The rail strike comes on the same day as the Tories face humiliating defeats in three by-elections—Uxbridge, Selby and Somerton and Frome. If voters boot out the sitting Tory MPs, it will deepen the divisions in Rishi Sunak’s weak government.
It’s a good time to hit the Tories hard and break the deadlock in the dispute—but that requires a sharp shift from the union leaders’ strategy.
The rail strikes cannot follow the pattern up until now. First, there is a solid strike—services grind to a halt showing workers’ power, others join picket lines in solidarity, and public support remains high despite the smear campaign in the press.
And then it’s punctuated by a large pause in action, which allows ministers and bosses to keep their attacks on track.
Aslef leader Mick Whelan said the union “have not heard a word from the employers” since April and “haven’t sat down with the government since January”. His admission shows it will take a different strategy to beat the Tories and bosses.
The RMT and Aslef urgently need to escalate the strikes—and calling indefinite action has the potential to swiftly derail their plans.
It’s crucial that workers organise to escalate action, stop union leaders pushing through rotten deals and to unify action wherever possible.
On Saturday 23 September a “Workers’ Summit” is meeting around the slogan, “Link the fights, reject bad deals, fight to win!”
It’s described as “an afternoon for grassroots collaboration” and was initiated by Lambeth and Hackney NEU, NHS Workers Say No and Strike Map. It’s not just for those involved in battles taking place now, but for every worker. The summit will host discussion but can also strengthen the networks of resistance at the base of the unions.
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