Network Rail: a lesson in how not to lead a dispute

Submitted by Matthew on 4 November, 2010 - 10:31

RMT maintenance engineers at Network Rail have voted four to one to endorse a reorganisation deal.The RMT has presented this deal as a victory, pointing out that it “will deliver a seven per cent pay rise by the end of 2011... the package will also deliver a £2,000 lump sum before Christmas and rules out compulsory redundancies”. An AWL member in Network Rail engineering takes a very different view.

The ballot result comes after a badly organised campaign over the new terms and conditions.

The deal will stop workers leading a reasonable life outside work. 28 weeks of nights, 52 weekend shifts of duty over 32 weekends for established staff, while new entrants will have to work up to 39 weeks of nights, 65 shifts of duty over 39 weekends. No doubt management will use the split conditions to try to split up established and newer workers.

The introduction of working in areas which are not your normal patch jeopardises safety. Local knowledge plays a major part in working safely.

Job security is only guaranteed until 2012 and is subject to regular “reviews”. The whole package is also up for review.

The £2000 bribe shows how desperate management were to get this package through.

But the only reason that this deal has been accepted is because of our union leadership's unwillingness to lead.

The sorry history of this dispute could be taken as a generic lesson in what not to do in a dispute.

Firstly, we had a dispute over harmonisation of terms and conditions, which was called off after a solidly supported national strike. Management backed off, giving assurances that there would be no changes to our terms and conditions.

This was followed by a ten month delay to our pay settlement, reinforcing the idea that the union would rather string out a dispute in the hope that management would cave in than force the issue from a position of strength.

We then faced a re-organisation which had new terms and conditions piggybacked onto it. What we got was essentially a re-run of the previous dispute. Initially there was good support from the membership — so much so that the ballot got a massive majority in favour of strike action.

Then our dispute was lined up with the signallers’ separate dispute with Network Rail, so that we would be out on strike at the same time. A good tactic. The signallers have much a more direct influence on the running of trains and a higher public profile. Management used the anti-trade union laws to stop the signallers' strike. Though no injunction was used against the engineering strike our leadership called it off. This threw away the momentum which had been built up and sent a message to management that we were impotent. It also revealed that there was no plan B.

Months passed. Every time a request was made for an update from the union, we were either ignored or fobbed off.

Management then started the “final offer” war. This consisted of at least three final offers which were almost identical. This had the effect of making workers think that it was all over and there was no other way out. When the leadership did not come out against the last final offer and warned of only long-term all-out strike action to defeat it…the ballot result was exactly what the RMT leadership wanted.

We cannot let this pass. The actions of our union leaders have been shoddy and they must be held to account.

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