Network Rail workers will strike for 24 hours from 5 pm on Monday 25 May, and will impose a 48-hour overtime ban from midnight on Sunday 24 May, in their campaign over pay and for job security.
Members of the RMT union and the TSSA union voted for strikes after workers in both unions rejected Network Rail’s latest pay offer: a £500 non-consolidated payment followed by increases pegged to the Retail Price Index until 2017, with a no compulsory redundancies guarantee withdrawn from 31 December 2016.
Network Rail claims it cannot afford a larger pay award, despite reporting £1 billion profits in June 2014, and top directors earning close to £1 million per year, enjoying increases of up to 47%.
RMT’s ballot returned a huge majority for strikes, with 80% voting for them on a 60% turnout. TSSA members voted by 53% for strikes, and by 80% for action short of strikes, on a turnout of slightly more than 50%. The RMT’s ballot would pass even the stringent new restrictions on strike ballots proposed by the Tories.
As Solidarity went to press, on 19 May, Network Rail bosses have issued a legal challenge to the TSSA ballot (but not to the RMT one), stating “numerous defects” with the ballot but not giving details.
The strike will be the first national walkout on the mainline railway system since a signallers’ strike in 1994. Network Rail employees work in a variety of roles, including signalling, maintenance, and engineering. A solid strike will have a huge impact on train services throughout the country.
The strike is particularly significance as the first major national dispute since the re-election of the Tories, and the first since they announced their intention to quickly press ahead with imposing new anti-strike laws. The strike is part of a wider battle across the entire railway industry against destaffing and attacks on pay and conditions, resulting from the recommendations of the McNulty Report (commissioned by New Labour and accelerated by the Tories).
As Solidarity went to press, on 19 May, unions were meeting Network Rail bosses at conciliation service ACAS for talks.
Keep up the pace!
By a Network Rail worker
It’s good that RMT moved quickly after the ballot to set dates for action, which put pressure on TSSA. We should make sure the pace of the dispute continues to accelerate now.
In the RMT, the campaign has been inclusive and had an all-grades focus; the engineering side has been given as much prominence as the operational side, which includes signallers.
The talks at ACAS could lead to the strike being called off. But the re-election of the Tories might encourage management to dig their heels in.
We need to mobilise support, both locally and nationally, and counter the anti-union offensive in the press. The unions’ national press departments need to do more, but local branches, Regional Councils, and Trades Councils should be making sure we’re getting leaflets out there, and using the local press.
Unions should organise high-profile pickets and solidarity demonstrations at stations. These might not directly affect whether or not people come into work, as most signal boxes and engineering depots aren’t at stations, but will have a lot of propaganda value. We can learn from the work RMT activists did with “Hands Off London Transport” on London Underground, leafleting members of the public to explain the links between the industrial dispute and the wider issues. Passengers need a properly-staffed railway, staffed by well-paid workers in secure jobs.
Workplace picket lines should be mounted wherever possible. All grades and functions have a role to play; creating a backlog on engineering work could cost the company huge amounts of money in the medium to long term, and a solid strike from signallers has the power to stop the job on the day. We need to look at extending the action, though, as there’s a possibility the company could use managers to cover individual signallers’ work on the strike day.
The unions’ demand is for a substantial pay increase, and for the no compulsory redundancies guarantee to be extended throughout all four years of the deal.
We should argue for that demand to go further: we should oppose job cuts and destaffing altogether. If technology and productivity mean there’s less work to go around, we should respond by arguing for reduced hours to ensure the work is shared rather than accepting that some jobs will go, and only fighting over whether redundancies are compulsory or not.
Politically, we should put the Labour Party on the spot to back the strike. The dispute involves workers in England, Scotland, and Wales – which shows that our class unites us across national boundaries. It will be interesting to see whether Plaid Cymru and the SNP, who postured in the election as opponents of austerity and parties of the broad left, will back the strike.
The dispute began somewhat sluggishly. The original pay offer was made in Autumn 2014, and the settlement was due in January. It would have been better to run a strike ballot concurrently with the ballot on the pay offer. In future, we should always aim to strike when our pay settlement is due (if bosses haven’t met our demands), rather than letting talks drag on for months.
The RMT has conducted the dispute in a relatively democratic way so far, convening mass reps’ meetings to discuss the strategy. Those meetings need to continue, and involve TSSA reps too. Although it’s not always possible to convene mass meetings to vote on every aspect of a dispute, wherever possible strikes should not be suspended without such meetings. Rank-and-file reps and activists need to be in the driving seat.
There’s a feeling amongst many workers that we should see how the first strike goes and then decide on further action from there.
But the unions need to send a clear signal, both to the bosses and to their own members, that we’re in it for the long haul — if not by naming the next set of strike dates now, then at least by giving a clear message that we will strike again, and quickly, if our demands are not met after the first strike.