Network Rail operational: a dispute mishandled

Submitted by Tubeworker on 16 August, 2006 - 9:15

Network Rail operational staff will finally get their 35-hour week - but after an unacceptable wait and at the price of being locked into a two-year pay deal. Many rank-and-file members are left demoralised after RMT stumbled its way through the dispute.

Management agreed the 35-hour week five years ago. The union should have piled on pressure for NR to deliver without strings, but instead faced an insulting offer tying the shorter working week to a three-year pay deal with pitiful annual rises, with no progress on important issues like staff travel.

Rightly, RMT balloted for strikes, got a big Yes vote, and named dates.

Then it suspended the action so members could consider a new deal. Bob Crow called it "probably the best in the industry this year" and told the press that the union would recommend accepting the offer before the Executive had even discussed it!

Rank-and-file reps took a different view, recognising the new offer as little better than the last one, and insisting the Executive recommend rejection. The members soundly rejected it, albeit with fewer voting in the referendum compared to the initial ballot.

Again the union leadership named strikes, but again the Grand Old Dukes of Unity House had marched us up the hill only to march us down again, calling off the action for an offer only marginally better than the previous one and still including a two-year pay deal, this time not even seeking reps’ views before making their recommendation.

Too often, the union names strikes just to call them off. You might be familiar with this if you work for First Great Western, or DLR, or LUL Service Control, or One. Have our leaders not heard about the boy who cried wolf? If workers get to expect strikes to be cancelled, the union could be in real trouble when it does have to go ahead. With this fear in mind, the leadership feels it has to accept rubbish and dress it up as a victory in order to 'wrap up' the dispute.

Union officials should see through bosses' tricks. If they want a 2-year deal, they will offer a 3-year deal, then make out they are conceding when they reduce it to 2. (LUL is trying the same trick, asking for a 5-year deal then 'graciously' shifting to 4 years!) But we want a one-year deal - S&T and P-Way got one, and it is both Signalling and Clerical and Supervisory grades' conference policy. A 2-year deal is not a 'draw' that we should accept, it is an attack that we should fight.

We hoped that the Executive had learnt its lesson after the first fumble. But you get the impression that some of them rely on the General Secretary to do their thinking for them. Having given little thought to how they should conduct the dispute, relying instead on the poor revised offer to make it go away, they have to share the discredit for how the dispute was handled.

We also remember head office trying to stifle this dispute in its infancy, claiming we could not run two disputes at once and we would be in the thick of our pensions fight. The pensions battle had been sidelined by July so there was no excuse then!

In 1994, signallers had a national pay dispute which ended in what could at best be described as a draw. In 2006 we should have aimed for something better than that.

We could have held very effective strikes. With signallers out, few trains could run; we could have further strengthened it by getting drivers out. The disciplinary regime for safety of the line incidents is much stricter now than it was 12 years ago, so we had a real chance to convince drivers not to take trains out on safety grounds, persuading them collectively that they didn't need to put their records on the line to break a strike.

Instead, the union alienated its members, then used their resultant demoralisation as an excuse to settle. Having no faith in their leaders to fight for more, members will of course vote to accept whatever was on offer.

The mishandling of this dispute points to a better way of running disputes. Top priority? Stop thinking that the purpose of a ballot is to get the bosses to negotiate.

In any dispute we should seize the initiative and keep it. When we get a result for strike action there should be a strike. Members voted for it: they should get it.

If this brings management to talks then good, but they could have done that before so why let them dictate to us? Too often we start with the initiative, talking to members, convincing them to vote for action, planning picket lines, only for it to come grinding to a halt when management offer talks. The momentum goes.

So why do it? Goodwill?! The bosses only show goodwill when strikes are called! We must negotiate and strike at the same time.

The problem is a bureaucratic approach to disputes. The issue is seen as revolving around talks, with the workforce as a tap to be turned on and off. This lets management call the shots. They can let the ballot run, see the results, then decide what to do. If the result is to strike, they can prevaricate then get it called off by offering talks or a revised offer. Instead, the message should be that once we've called strikes there will be strikes and they will continue until members are happy with the offer.

The unions need to work out a strategy for the dispute in the first place! It should look for ways to encourage participation, eg. setting up local strike committees. More people get involved during strikes. We can show them why they should stay around after the strike, go into the branches, help build the union.

The leadership's role is to nurture initiative and militancy amongst members, rather than to look for any way out of a dispute. The union needs to finish what it starts - to see it through to the end. Too often, they look like the opening scene from the Monkees, when the lads run down to the sea, dip their toes in then hot-foot it back up the beach.