After months of fighting, and twelve separate days out on strike, workers on Virgin Cross Country are facing the possibility of a painful defeat. RMT's attempt to stop cuts in Sunday pay rates has failed so far. Strikes were suspended at the end of March. Although Virgin appeared to relax its previous intransigence and agreed to talks, and in spite of the General Secretary's direct intervention, they have brought no real result. RMT is recommending members vote No in a referendum on a new offer, but the dispute looks to have little chance of revival.
When we are defeated, our union officials usually want to put it behind us and move on. Although this may sound positive and forward-looking, it misses the chance to analyse where we went wrong and so increase our chances of winning next time.
The main reason we are losing is that a ruthless employer was backed to the hilt by a pro-business government. Privatisation put profit at the centre of the rail industry, so companies maximise their take by keeping wages as low as they can get away with. Swindling us out of a few quid on Sundays helps to feather their comfortable nests.
The 'New Labour' (aka. No Labour) government even allowed the Strategic Rail Authority to compensate Virgin for its losses on strike days, so enabling the company to dig its heels in and keep going until it won.
But the union made mistakes too. We need to admit what they were, so we can put them right for the future.
Members started striking on Sundays at the start of 2006. It soon became clear that Virgin was taking a hard-headed stance, so Sunday strikes alone would not win. But the union ploughed ahead with them regardless.
We have to question the wisdom of Sunday strikes. OK, it fits with the issue - Sunday pay rates - and it seemed easier for the staff. But Sunday strikes disrupt working-class people's leisure time more than they hit big business, so put less pressure on the employer. In fact, the very ease with which members were able to forego Sunday earnings at the outset made it harder to discuss the vital strategy of stepping-up the dispute by setting strike days during the week. The strike seems to have been sold to some members as something they'd hardly notice!
So, when Virgin's intransigence and Government interference provided stumbling blocks to early success, it was then a big step to persuade members to start feeling the pain of weekday strikes. Plus, scab managers were boasting about the chance to "play trains" and grab enhanced pay on Sundays. With so much engineering work on Sundays, the strikes' impact was less than it would have been on weekdays. What seems 'easiest' is not always what is most effective.
RMT has a bad habit of holding strikes as protest gestures. At least it holds strikes to start with, unlike the TSSA, and more often than ASLEF. But strikes need to be part of a strategy decided by rank-and-file members and designed to win, rather than a series of token shows of strength. Sometimes a one-off strike can make the employer back down, but not in this dispute.
As the weekly strikes went on, the dispute became harder for members. But while the SRA was bailing out Virgin financially, RMT did not do so for strikers. Rail unions have a tradition of hardly ever handing out strike pay. But they should do.
The action was eventually stepped up, with an additional strike on Friday 17th March. This was very successful, but the momentum was not built on properly. Union leaders would probably claim that members objected to any further escalation. But if the plain facts are that without stepping up you will lose, then the union's leadership has a duty to tell the members that at an early stage and win them over to more action.
Finally, the union should have produced a leaflet for the public much earlier than it did. Not only would this win support, it also boosts strikers' morale to have material to counteract the bosses' lies and media bias. But for the first few months, there was nothing from head office and local activists had to do their own leaflets, if they could.
To end on a positive note, there are also good things to remember and learn from this dispute. Effective and lively picketing, new reps getting stuck in and building the action, rail workers standing up to our bosses and enjoying it, and members being made aware of government and media bias against trades unions. Now we have to rebuild that after union mistakes allowed it to fizzle away - and build support for renewed action.