Nicola Biggerstaff – 23 June 2022
This week, over 40,000 RMT Union members across the UK downed tools in their biggest walkout in over 30 years. Their dispute with Network Rail over planned pay and planned staffing restructure – read job cuts – in the background of the current cost of living crisis has divided public opinion, but not in the way it should. At a time when railway companies are making substantially bigger profits, they can afford to pay their workers fairly, but would rather vilify these campaigners and cry that they hold too much power in an attempt to turn the court of public opinion against them, the very court who’s working rights and conditions will be affected by the outcome. Now I am fairly young, but I’ve watched Billy Elliot enough times to know when something feels familiar. The culmination of 18 months of failed talks and false promises, in which pay rises have been dangled in front of workers like a conveniently carrot-shaped stick, resulted in no real progress. We hailed our transport workers as heroes during the pandemic, and have rewarded them with the prospect of job losses as the fallout from over a decade of Tory governance continues, allowing private firms to get away with defrauding their employees to expand their profits and executive salaries. This was always coming, Covid simply accelerated the process.
Furthermore, discourse north of the border attempting to turn this crisis into an issue of Scottish nationalism is dangerous. However, the Scottish element to these strikes also deserves some focus. ScotRail staff’s dispute over pay and conditions has also been simmering away for some time, as anyone who tried to take the train on a Sunday last year will tell you. Failure to recognise the extent of these systemic issues and malpractices in our transport network will have undoubtedly led to a shock to the system when the scale of the planned industrial action across the UK became realised, even following resolution in Scotland prior to COP26 late last year. Yet there are some who insist that the Scottish rail workers have been emboldened in light of the new nationalised service, and that this has further inflamed striking workers across the border over government inaction, which would otherwise have been considered too interventionist. To those who claim this, I would counter: is Scottish independence really so crucial to an English train driver or signal operator that they would feel compelled to strike over it? No, I didn’t think so. However, the unfolding situation and its eventual outcome warrants some special attention from Holyrood: if they want a nationalised service to work for them, they need to have the workers on side. And right now, they are not happy.
Yes, strikes are an inconvenience. But we seem to have taken the convenience of our services for granted for so long that we’ve forgotten that the inconvenience is the whole point. Rail workers are a vital component to keeping our country moving, and it’s about time we respected them as such. For those of us who cannot participate in strike action, we should be using these moments of standstill to reflect on our role in it. For those in the public sector, this is the moment to pay attention. It might look ugly from the outside, but it is necessary to ensure the protection of the other industries whose bosses are currently taking notes on both government’s tactics. Both the UK and Scottish Transport Secretaries have failed to intervene to protect workers from their profiteering bosses, and any interest in trying to resolve it now will look disingenuous, having already let these issues fester for so long, but only seeming to care now that it’s a problem for them personally. The Westminster government have already expressed their disdain for union organisers in a style very reminiscent of their predecessors, but whether they’re ‘barons’ or ‘the enemy within’, they are clearly held in disrepute by anyone who wishes to maintain the status quo which, as we’re being made increasingly aware post-Covid and mid-cost of living crisis, just isn’t working anymore.
You cannot claim to support workers’ rights if you do not support their right to strike. Without experience in the sector, we cannot claim to understand their plight. Having journeyed on many a last train home myself, witnessing the drunken fallout of many city escapades unfold through the carriages, we have to understand that this is only a fraction of the issues faced by customer-facing workers, who are verbally and physically assaulted when they intervene, and accused of complicity when they don’t to protect themselves and their wellbeing; which is in itself only another fraction still of the overall picture of a crumbling infrastructure faced with a lack of support from both the higher ups and those who claim to stand beside them. While the resolution to ScotRail workers pay and conditions as a result of negotiations with Aslef was welcomed, it clearly wasn’t enough. And unless you’re in the thick of it yourself, you’re in no position to argue otherwise. The workers of some of the country’s most crucial infrastructure are actually fighting to keep their real-term pay cut, after soaring inflation, to less than 3%. It is not selfish to fight to keep yourself out of poverty.
When we think of historical examples of government and trade union relations, one particular example will be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, one which I have been alluding and comparing to throughout. It’s the most obvious example of what government’s risk by not taking seriously the concerns of the workers that keep the country afloat. It is not pretty, but it is also not inevitable. The modern plight of our rail workers could see them become this generation’s miners, and we must do all we can to ensure we remain on the right side of history; up to and including showing our full support to those worker’s who have not taken this drastic action lightly.