Holding Back the Tide

Submitted by Off The Rails on 2 July, 2009 - 11:09

The recession is seeing railway employers wage full-scale attacks on workers, and a patchy resistance to these attacks.

Our first report shows London Overground workers fighting and winning. There are other examples too, though none on quite such an impressive scale!

But elsewhere, cuts have gone through, with the unions able only to minimise the pain rather than defeat the attack. Sometimes, workers have even declined the union’s invitation to strike in defence of their jobs.

Why? There are several factors. Those balloted may be working for small employers or in small units, with a high turnover and little expectation of job security. Union organisation may be weak. If workers have little confidence they can win, they may not be willing to sacrifice pay for what seems a big risk. People may have bad experiences of previous strikes due to inadequate union tactics. Employers often run dirty campaigns to pressure workers against striking.

Mostly, the recession has workers fearful of rocking the boat in case it capsizes, and buying in to the employers’ and politicians’ mantra that we all have to make sacrifices during these hard times. (We don’t see our bosses and rulers making many sacrifices!)

So, faced with hundreds of job losses, RMT members on South West Trains voted not to strike, by 591 votes to 511.

And when RMT balloted members in six companies for action to stop job cuts in on-track machines and track renewals, only one group of workers (in Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure) voted Yes to strikes, though all voted Yes to action short (in Amey, Babcock Rail, Balfour Beatty Rail Plant, Colas and VolkerRail) and have held overtime bans. The vote for ‘action short’ suggests that members do want to fight and win, but hope (probably in vain) that they can do so without striking.

Not all strike votes have been lost. In the same sector, Jarvis workers voted for strikes and action short, and started with a one-day overtime ban and one-hour strike, followed by a longer overtime ban, called off when progress seemed to be made. There are now likely to be further strikes in July.

National Express East Anglia staff voted 276-118 Yes, securing a ‘no compulsory redundancy’ pledge for the reorganisation, although concerns remain about vacancies, use of agency staff and future redundancies.

First Capital Connect workers voted 3:1 for strikes, but action was suspended following some movement from the company.

The overall picture is rampant employers, the recession as their motivator and pretext, attacking workers with impunity, and workers making faltering steps to fight back.

We need our unions to show leadership and effective strategies. We need to reject our rulers' mantra that we have to accept attacks due to the recession. Rank-and-file workers need to get organised, to share information and ideas, to understand the economics and the politics of the situation.

Off The Rails exists in order to provide a forum for doing all these things.

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