After seventeen years of rail privatisation, and wave upon wave of attack on railworkers’ conditions, the Government has suddenly declared that railworkers are featherbedded.
Welcoming the McNulty report, published on 19 May, it has signalled an assault on railworkers’ pay and conditions, with the threat of new anti-strike laws to hand if the unions resist.
The truth is not that railworkers have been living in a previously unremarked pocket of luxury.
The Government is spending a lot of money on rail in a time of financial difficulty for the state. Big investment projects like Crossrail and the Birmingham high-speed link, when they come on stream, will give railworkers great potential industrial power. So will the Olympics. The Government wants to crush railworkers’ union strength before that happens.
Sir Roy McNulty, author of the report, writes that the rail industry must earn its “licence to grow”. He means that projects like Crossrail and HS2 (the high speed link between Birmingham and London) must be be funded by savings from existing rail budgets.
A large part of those cuts from existing budgets, using the most realistic of the report’s scenarios, is to come from reduced staff costs (£260 million out of £740 million by 2018/9).
In particular, the report recommends that driver-only operation should become the “default” for train services. In other words, it recommends making almost all train guards redundant.
The unions must respond immediately and in a forthright manner. The Government will try to ride out the political flak that large-scale national rail strikes will cause. We have to ensure that they can’t.
The McNulty report was commissioned by the previous Labour government. It is a ten-year plan for making railworkers pay for the modernisation of the railway and the failures of privatisation, which has led to a government subsidy for the private rail operators of £5 billion a year compared to the £1 billion a year paid to the old nationalised British Rail.
The report expresses concern about the fragmentation of the railways. Phrases like “whole-system approach”, “system-wide”, and “seamless approach” litter the document.
The obvious way to get an integrated railway is renationalisation. McNulty dismisses it. He says he “has no political or theological view”, but laments the “enormous costs that could be involved in renationalisation”.
That indicates ideological blindness. Why couldn’t the franchises be allowed to expire, and pass back to public ownership, costing nothing? And as it is, the Government already owns Network Rail.
As the rail expert Christian Wolmar, writing for the rail union TSSA, puts it, McNulty “did not draw the obvious conclusion — that privatisation and fragmentation are at the root cause of the industry’s overspending...
“McNulty has allowed himself to be constrained by the same old neo-liberal agenda: private sector is best, state is inefficient and so on. The biggest irony... is that Britain’s railways are less efficient than their state run neighbours”.
Railworkers want, not just a technically-efficient state-run system, but a railway which would be part of an integrated public transport system, run by workers’ control, ecologically sound, and serving the needs of the majority rather than primarily of first-class-ticket businesspeople.
Renationalisation is the first step. But, decrying the bureaucratic inefficiency of the old nationalised British Rail, McNulty recommends more bureaucracy through the creation of national bodies to achieve network integration.
He engages in doublespeak on employee relations. He admits that his report’s “recommendations would inevitably lead to significant changes for the people in the rail industry”, but blandly comments: “Improved employee relations will make the industry better able to handle the significant changes”.
Pull the other one! How will the threat of mass redundancies and worsening terms and conditions improve employee relations? Unless of course “improved employee relations “ means silencing those pesky trade unions...
McNulty looks to the Government to “put in place incentives and contractual mechanisms that encourage change”. In other words he wants the government to continue with the practice of compensating train companies for lost revenue as a result of industrial action but on a much larger scale.
It is certain he will get the Government to “support the industry in making these changes”. Just recently, speaking at the bosses club, the Institute of Directors, George Osborne told business leaders to “get stuck in” against “unions and interest groups”. Some much for the bosses, their Government and its hired hands, what about the unions.
The unions have come out against the report, but not in a sufficiently focused or urgent manner. McNulty is looking for some “quick wins” to generate momentum in the “change programme”. The unions need to respond likewise.
A union action plan would include the following points:
• Setting up a fighting fund to enable the unions to run longer disputes than the one or two-day strikes which have become the norm in recent years;
• The unions should order their financial affairs so as to minimise the effects of sequestration.
• The unions should set up procedures (“pattern bargaining”) to enable them to run a dispute across several different companies at once.
• Encourage railworkers to take their campaign into local anti-cuts groups and trades councils — to mobilise support and when the time comes, strike solidarity.
• Cross-union liaison and united action. Rail unions should campaign to involve their members in local anti-cuts campaigns.
• A big public political campaign, starting now, for rail renationalisation, against new anti-strike laws, and for the comprehensive restoration of workers’ rights to strike, picket, and organise.
The rail unions affiliated to the Labour Party, ASLEF and TSSA, should use their affiliation to press this political campaign within the Labour Party and demand support from Labour leaders and MPs.