By Sam Ord
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2808

Why everyone should get behind the rail strikes

RMT union members at Network Rail and 13 train operating companies will stage three days of strikes in June—and Tube workers will join them on the first.
Issue 2808
Rishi Sunak in a Network Rail to illustrate an article about the national rail strikes

The chancellor Rishi Sunak visits a Network Rail project at Kings Cross in London February 2020. The Tories and bosses fear the coming rail strikes (Picture: Number 10 Flickr)

We’re on track for a major class battle. Over 40,000 rail workers across Britain are gearing up for three days of strikes this month—and around 10,000 Tube workers will join them on the first day. 

Their strikes on 21, 23 and 25 June should become a major focus in the battle against Boris Johnson, the Tories and the cost of living crisis. “We are not the only workers being made to pay for the Covid crisis,” Dan, a Network Rail worker in the West Midlands, told Socialist Worker. “And I hope that our strikes are the start of a major fightback.” 

RMT union members at Network Rail and 13 train operating companies are fighting over pay, jobs and working conditions. Workers on the London Underground have already staged two strikes against bosses’ plans to slash 600 jobs, which would make the service less safe.

The strike will paralyse Britain’s rail bosses and be the largest one on the railways since 1989. “It’s perfect timing for the strikes to coincide with ones on the London Underground,” said Dan. “It means there will be no rail services in the whole of the country. Rail bosses must now understand how important workers are to keeping the railway running, otherwise they will be the ones responsible for bringing the country to a standstill.”

On Network Rail, the strike involves maintenance and operations workers at rail operating and signalling centres, depots and some stations. Crucially, signallers have huge power on Britain’s railways, which heavily rely on track-side signalling. On the train operating companies the strike involves everyone other than drivers—who are mainly Aslef union members—and office staff and managers—who are mainly TSSA union members. 

Dan said, “We are striking for a pay rise, to stop job cuts and to stop detrimental changes to our working conditions. There are a multitude of issues within each of the companies on strike.

“Specifically within Network Rail, we haven’t had a pay rise in over two years and within the engineering disciplines we are facing 2,500 safety critical maintenance job losses. And the changing of maintenance schedules will have serious safety implications.”  

The Tories and the mainstream media are already spearheading a propaganda war against the RMT and rail workers. According to the Telegraph newspaper, a government taskforce to combat the strike includes Andrew Gilligan. The right wing “journalist” has now reinvented himself as Johnson’s “transport adviser”.

A No 10 source said the rail strikes were “thoroughly irresponsible” and would inflict “pain and economic disruption on their fellow citizens in really tough times”. But it’s this Tory government that’s responsible for inflicting pain on working class people, as prices soar and the value of pay, pensions and benefits collapses. A defeat for it at the hands of the rail workers would help everyone resist the cost of living crisis. 

One of the main lines of attack focuses on rail workers’ pay. The BBC said, “According to the Department for Transport, the average rail worker salary is £44,000. This is more than the median pay of other public sector workers, such as nurses (£31,000), teachers (£37,000), and care workers (£17,000).”

This is gross hypocrisy from the Tories and press. Firstly, why shouldn’t workers earn “high” wages? They are nothing compared to rail bosses’ six-figure salaries and company profits —profits that wouldn’t exist without workers keeping the railway running in the first place. 

In February 2021—at the very height of the Covid pandemic—Network Rail CEO Andrew Haines was trousering £585,000 a year. When he took the job in 2018, there was much back-patting among bosses that Haines was actually on 27 percent less than his predecessor. 

Haines was brought in as a hatchet-man to run down the railway industry. His previous job as Civil Aviation Authority boss won him high praise from Tory minister Chris Grayling—while inspectors complained that redundancies and pay cuts stopped the watchdog checking airline safety properly. 

Jeremy Westlake, the Chief Financial Officer, was slightly poorer—at £415,000 a year. Route Services managing director Susan Cooklin had a “pay floor” of £385,000 a year while the six managing directors of Network Rail’s regions all took at least £330,000. Meanwhile, rail workers have faced real terms pay cuts as the cost of living soars

Secondly, the problem is that health, care and education workers are paid too little. The same politicians going after the rail workers have pushed through pay freezes and below-inflation pay cuts in the NHS. 

Attacking rail workers will only encourage a race to the bottom, which helps the Tories and bosses hold down working class people’s pay. And if rail workers do earn more, it’s partly through union organisation. The solution is for unions, such as Unison and the NEU, to organise strikes for higher pay. 

Thirdly, average wages are always skewed by the highest paid—and there are many low paid workers in the rail industry. 

The Tories and bosses claim they have to push through the attacks to find £1 billion to £2 billion in annual “savings” to repay subsidies given during the Covid pandemic. But, as Dan said, “The government is using its increase in subsidies to rail companies during Covid as a smoke screen to attack railway workers.”

The subsidies were a massive handout to protect bosses’ profits, and they have been allowed to retake the franchises after the pandemic. In 2020-21 rail industry income in 2020-21 was £20.7 billion—up a 2.4 percent from 2019-20. This was made up of £16.9 billion from government funding, £2.5 billion from passengers, and £1.3 billion from other sources. And rail companies are still making over £500 million in profit a year. 

Meanwhile, London Underground bosses claim they have to push through a jobs slaughter to repay money taken from central government during the pandemic. Tube worker Mac told Socialist Worker, “If you cut 600 jobs you create an unsafe network for passengers, they need a staff presence.

“The job cuts earmarked to go are almost exclusively gate staff who assist tourists, lost children and disabled people. They also include station assistant train services—who manage people getting on and off the platform.”

Mac added, “Platform management is really important for every worker. They assist the driver—it’s a safety role—and they’re mostly part time staff.” And Mac believes if the management teams get away with these attacks more will come. “Station staff are just the first in the firing line,” he said. “Others will be affected.”

We need a publicly-owned and funded transport system—not run for profit, but for meeting people’s needs. 

The Labour Party has already made clear which side it’s on—not the rail workers. A spokesman said, “We have been clear in the position that the strikes shouldn’t go ahead.”

Rail workers have been under immense pressure during the Covid pandemic to “keep Britain running”. Some workers ended up extremely sick—or dead. Now bosses are making them pay for the Covid and cost of living crises. Fighting for a pay rise is the way to resist this and the workers’ battle should be an inspiration for other workers to do the same.

Every socialist, trade unionist and campaigner should go around their workplaces building support for the strike—for example, with a petition. Visit workplaces and make links with the rail workers, invite RMT members to speak at your workplaces, union branches and campaign meetings. During the strikes, fight to get as many trade unionists, students and activists and union banners to the picket lines. 

A win for the rail workers would dramatically shift the political situation in Britain. It would be a huge blow to Johnson’s zombie administration, and a signal that it’s possible for working class people to defeat the Tories and bosses. 

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