Tuesday, March 24, 2009
While the leaders of most trade unions are flying as fast as they can away from any confrontation with government or employers, the RMT rail union is in serious battle with the companies that run trains. The RMT, in the eyes of many, are the true defenders of the rail system.
Yesterday the union, which has a policy of resistance to job and pay cuts, announced plans to ballot its 10,000 members on the London Underground (LUL) for strike action against the threat of 3,000 redundancies and a virtual pay cut for some of its members.
“London Underground seems to think that observing agreements is optional, and its plan to cut jobs is simply unacceptable,” RMT general secretary Bob Crow said.
“After three months of stonewalling, LUL has also tabled what is at best a five-year pay freeze which it knows full well could never be accepted, and its managers appear to have been given the nod to unleash a fresh round of bullying.”
And a blizzard of other disputes is breaking out on the railways. Conductors at London Midland have voted by 8 to 1 for a series of strikes on the question of Sunday working. RMT members at First Capital Connect have voted by more than three to one to strike, and at National Express East Anglia by more than two to one for action, after the employers refused to provide unequivocal assurances that there would be no compulsory redundancies. At South Eastern 1,400 RMT members are in dispute over questions of safe working in new trains and job cuts, while at Network Rail the union is demanding an end to cuts in vital engineering work that threatens to undermine railway safety and cost 1,000 jobs.
It is the spectre of falling revenues and the economic crash that is driving the train companies to these provocative actions. The government plans to reduce the annual subsidy to the train operators from a £5bn (that is about half their total operating costs) today to around £3bn by 2014, while the crash will result in a fall in numbers of passengers on the trains for the first time for many years.
The rail industry, fragmented and chaotic since its privatisation in 1993, and deeply unpopular in the minds of most travellers for the emphasis by the operating companies on profits at the expense of service (as the RMT keeps on pointing out) is in a poor position to start a general offensive on jobs and wages which may well be seen by the public as vindictive and an attack on safety, which is exactly what it would be.
Crow says that government policy effectively subsidies redundancies and adds: “Private rail operators have demonstrated time and again that their shareholders always come first, and it is time for rail operations to be returned to the public sector where they can be run in the interests of passengers, the economy and the environment.”
The question of questions is: how can a return to public ownership be achieved? And not just the old-fashioned bureaucratic state ownership, under which the network was slashed to the bone. No one in the RMT seriously believes New Labour will attack or take over the rail companies. The leadership of the union is quite aware of the true pro-capitalist, anti-union nature of this government and owes them no allegiance whatever, having disaffiliated from Labour some time ago.
Crow and the RMT leaders have an opportunity to build a big movement amongst commuters and travellers AGAINST New Labour and to stimulate a discussion about how public ownership can be established. The union is sponsoring the People’s Charter for Change which could easily be turned from a signature-gathering venture into a vehicle for mobilising for far-reaching political change.