By Charlie Kimber
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2870

Time for new rail strike strategy as RMT members walk out for 24th time

The Tories have moved to the next stage of implementing the new anti-union laws
Issue 2870
RMT pickets with their union banners behind them. One worker has a raised fist

RMT union members on the picket line in Watford (Picture: RMT on Twitter)

Around 20,000 RMT union members at 14 train operating companies struck across large parts of Britain on Saturday over pay, safety and harsh new conditions. It was the 24th strike since the battle began well over a year ago.

Speaking from a picket line in Birmingham, RMT member Alan told Socialist Worker, “We are as determined as when we kicked this off. And I think our strikes helped to start a new set of strikes in large areas of the working class.

“Our problem is that the government lines up and subsidises the rail companies. So they are under less pressure to settle with us.

“Perhaps we could do more concentrated strikes, but I’d like to do that alongside other unions taking action—as they should.”

Rail workers have shown repeatedly they are ready to fight. But the present strategy is not working. There has to be serious escalation from just a couple of strikes a month.

Had there been an indefinite strike launched last year, we can guarantee it would have won well before the 24 days of strike that have taken place so far spread over 14 months.

On Saturday the RMT released a letter from its general secretary Mick Lynch to rail bosses. It calls for a one-year pay deal for 2022-3, for the rail bosses to guarantee no compulsory redundancies and to hold off from pushing through ticket office closures and worse conditions until December. Rail firms are very unlikely to offer anything.

Instead, they are more likely to use new anti-union laws (see below).

Unions plan further action for next weekend with Aslef train drivers’ union members walking out on Friday 1 September and RMT members on Saturday 2 September. Aslef has called an overtime ban for 2 September but has not implemented the permanent overtime ban its leaders have floated.

The RMT has also called a march on Thursday next week (31 August) over ticket office closures. Current government plans will see up to 1,000 ticket offices closed, putting 2,300 station staff jobs at risk. The closure of offices and the withdrawal of workers hits disabled people particularly hard.

But the closures affect everyone. Ticket offices now often see queues of people using them.

No to ticket office closures, demonstrate Thursday 31 August, assemble 5pm, Department for Transport, 33 Horseferry Road, London, SW1P 4DR. March at 5.30pm for a rally at 6pm opposite 10 Downing Street. Called by the RMT

What’s it all about?
  • Rail workers have not had a pay rise for four years. In 2021, during the pandemic, workers accepted a pay freeze. The bosses’ rail delivery group is now offering 4 percent for 2022 and 4 percent for 2023. This is linked to attacks such as the closure of ticket offices, mandatory Sunday working and “flexible working” for all new starters.
  • Briefly, this was increased a few months ago to 4 percent for year one and then 5 percent for year two—still a big pay cut. But in any case, it was linked to even more compromises from the union, which rejected it.
  • Strikes by 40,000 RMT members started in June 2022. About 20,000 of them employed by Network Rail stopped strikes in March this year after accepting a below-inflation deal.
  • The RMT has a ballot mandate under the anti-union laws to strike until November.
Tories prepare to use new anti-union laws

Rail workers may soon have to defy the law. On Friday the government launched a six-week “consultation” on imposing scabbing during strikes in several key industries.

The Minimum Services Act went through its final parliamentary stages in July. The law restricts the industrial action workers can carry out by setting a limit on how much of a service must still be provided during a strike.

It means one in five workers will have their right to strike taken away. The law also threatens trade unionists with the sack if they don’t follow bosses’ demands. And it hits unions with fines for resistance. Workers will be affected on the railways, in education and in ambulance, fire and rescue services.

Business minister Kevin Hollinrake said on Friday, “We believe in the right to strike but this must be balanced with the public’s right to access essential services and get on with their daily lives.”

It’s hypocritical rubbish. The Tories want to gut the right to strike from 5.5 million people—from nurses to firefighters to train guards. And they want to sweep away workers’ resistance against attacks on those “essential services”

The consultation continues until 6 October at which point the Tories will undoubtedly push through 99 percent of what they intended from the start.

Then they can start the attempt to outlaw strikes. Rail workers are likely to be early targets.

There is no effective alternative but defiance. Union leaders need to pledge that the group first affected should refuse to obey the law. And that other unions will actively support them—even if that action is deemed illegal.

Unions have formally called for action. The firefighters’ FBU general secretary Matt Wrack has backed “mass non-cooperation and non-compliance”. At the RMT conference, delegates adopted a resolution committing the union to call a national demonstration on a Saturday by 28 October and coordinated strikes. 

There are several motions on the agenda for the TUC union federation conference that meets on 10-13 September. All call for strong campaigning.

As for defiance, the FBU’s one is best, saying, “Congress supports the campaign for mass non-compliance, up to and including industrial action, to defeat these pernicious laws”. The RMT one is weaker, calling only for “a Special Congress, size to be determined, to explore options for non-compliance and resistance”.

The Unite motion calls on an incoming “Labour government (if elected in the next two years) to repeal all anti-trade union laws within 12 months of gaining office”.

Whatever is passed, workers need deeds, not just words.

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