Britain - Strikes on the railways - a fight which is long overdue

Mar/April 2002

Since the beginning of January, a number of rail strikes have been taking place across Britain's network. At the time of writing, ScotRail drivers have begun a series of 24-hour strikes over pay and conditions, after having forced the company to cut 25% of its services by an unofficial rest-day working ban in December. There have been three 48-hour stoppages on South West Trains and three two-day stoppages on Arriva Trains Northern with more planned. To add to this, there have been ballots for strike action on Connex South Eastern, First North Western, a referendum against a restructuring deal on Arriva Trains Merseyside and disputes over restructuring in EWS and Virgin Trains, as well as strike votes on London's Silverlink and Docklands Light Railway.

Of course, this is not the first time that there have been strikes on the railways since privatisation. And the leadership of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers' union, the RMT, regularly organises strike ballots which are then used purely for negotiating purposes, with no intention of calling a strike. But it is the first time for some years that actual strikes have taken place at more or less the same time in different companies.

It is this aspect which gives the current strike wave a certain importance, despite the visible weaknesses, or, to put it more precisely, the deliberate isolation of each of these disputes by the rail union leaderships. If nothing else, this importance can be measured by the almost hysterical tone adopted by some of the newspapers - like London's Evening Standard during the strikes on SWT - up to and including calls for strike- breaking and the crushing of the rail unions.

Predictably, journalists and politicians were quick to blame this strike wave on the so-called "left" union leadership heading the two main rail unions, the RMT and ASLEF. But as we will show, there is, unfortunately, nothing "left-wing" or radical in the way these union leaderships are conducting these disputes.

On the other hand, railway workers have every reason to want to regain some of the ground lost over the years - something that the media and politicians dismiss out of hand, of course. Nowhere in the press coverage of the SWT strikes, for instance, could one find the actual rates of pay of the railworkers in dispute.

A heritage of low pay and poor conditions

The most prominent issue for the majority of the workers involved in today's disputes is their wages, with long hours of work and the imposition of flexibility - and the insufficient recruitment which has caused these - coming close behind. This should not be surprising, in and of itself. Low pay and poor conditions for railworkers are a heritage from the days long before privatisation. However the establishment of private profit-making on the network entrenched this situation for some sections of workers and made it very much worse for others.

It should be recalled that the nationalised British Rail paid such low wages that the only way for most railworkers (including drivers) to make a up a decent wage was to work huge amounts of overtime. It was commonplace for workers to volunteer to work 12 hour shifts and seven-days-a-week, thereby foregoing their rest days for the sake of overtime, just in order to take home a living wage. Wages had fallen 30% in real terms between 1974 and 1986. The average working week in the mid-1980s was 52 hours.

After the cost-cutting programme of the early 1980s, came the run-up to privatisation. The whole network was divided up into sectors and sub-sectors - later called "profit centres" - and workers underwent reorganisation after reorganisation, as they were forced to apply and re-apply for their own jobs and agree to new conditions. Each time this was accompanied by thousands of job cuts (between 1982 and 1990, 125,000 jobs were cut) and each time conditions worsened.

Another 20,000 jobs were cut between 1991 and 1994, during the setting up of Railtrack and the "shadow" franchises in preparation for the sell-off which began in 1996. By 1997, after privatisation, "rail sector employment" stood at 98,300 - compared with 154,748 in 1990.

The takeover by private operators, resulted in yet more cuts in conditions. For instance, for the new generation of privately- employed railworkers, there were no longer those few "perks" which had somewhat compensated for low pay before, such as free travel passes - which in London covered the Underground system as well as the whole rail network. Today's rail workforce at best gets a limited number of free passes on the lines they work on and a discount on other lines.

Another relative advantage of the job used to be the possibility of workers moving between a variety of different rail jobs within their station or depot and to other parts of the network, or moving up the promotion scale. For instance drivers could naturally progress from suburban to inter-city trains. A lower grade railman could clean platforms, or trains, load parcels, work in Left Luggage, do portering, etc - and of course apply to train as a driver... All railworkers had the guarantee of another job should the work become redundant for some reason. Obviously the break up of the railway removed these possibilities, by subcontracting or selling off every operation as a separate, potentially profitable entity, thus atomising and isolating off what had been a single and very large workforce.

More importantly, sections of workers were handed over to all kinds of cowboy companies out for a quick buck. But the larger supposedly more respectable companies like SERCO, Initial or ISS have turned out to be just as cowboy-like in their behaviour towards the workforce and the work they have undertaken. To cut numbers, all companies have introduced additional tasks for each worker, often keeping them working during what used to be break times. However some subcontractors have introduced 12- hour compulsory shifts for grades such as station cleaners. Subcontracted workers are largely excluded from the albeit reduced "protection" of collective agreements still retained by the core workforce and are usually non-unionised. What is more, the subcontractors get away with underpaying, paying workers late or even not at all by using the simple trick of not employing local managers who would be responsible for sorting out grievances. Low-paid supervisors who are in charge on the ground are there to discipline the workforce and little else, carrying out the frequent sackings that occur for petty "offences" such as taking a tea break without permission, during a 12-hour stint.

As a result, today, in what remains one of the country's biggest public services, there are many companies who systematically flout Britain's already employer-biassed laws quite openly, as well as breaking railway regulations. And the so-called regulatory bodies such as Blair's Strategic Rail Authority do not give a damn about it. Workers are not their concern!

Conditions and the availability of jobs have been further undermined by the systematic use of temporary workers which gives companies the "flexibility" to make up numbers during the busier periods and saves them the expense of retaining workers at other times. Of course this allows overall labour costs to be reduced. Train cleaning is a case in point. On-train cleaners on GNER's London-Edinburgh line are employed through an agency and receive a wage of only £5 per hour. In theory they should have a permanent contract after one year on the job, or at least that is what they were told by the company. But some of them are still waiting after 2 to 3 years! Similarly for the agency temps used for all of the on-train catering on Connex, SWT and other short to medium distance services. In fact, having more or less established the principle that there is no actual wage benchmark for any particular job, the train companies have also maintained very low wages among their permanent staff. And indeed over the past few years, permanent new recruits have been put on a lower wage scale.

When eggs are rare, eggs are dear

Of course, the one thing that the anti-strike lobby keeps raising is the wage levels of train drivers. What they forget to mention is the high price this has involved for the drivers themselves.

Due to the slow but sure erosion of driving conditions which started as early as the 1980's, today's train drivers are now subject to conditions which should be unacceptable by any safety standards.

It was the still nationalised British Rail which first began this attack against conditions. And it should be pointed out that drivers in these days were paid less than senior signalmen and that drivers' pay was on average only 30% more than the lowest paid railman. In 1982, drivers lost the right to work an 8-hour day (which had been won during the strikes of 1919), when "flexible rostering" was introduced. This allowed, among other changes, the extension of a driving turn to 9 hours.

The next significant change, also starting in the early 1980s was the introduction of Driver Only Operation (DOO), on some trains, whereby guards were removed from trains, adding to drivers' responsibilities and leaving the driver alone to deal with emergencies. DOO was introduced step by step, and although it was opposed at first, eventually the unions negotiated away many guard's jobs by accepting the addition of a "DOO allowance". (Which amounted to £7.32/shift in 1985). In 1987, almost all drivers' assistants were removed from the cab - previously considered essential for the safety of high speed trains.

Then in the run-up to privatisation in 1992, BR's "Drivers' Restructuring Initiative" proposals set the scene for things to come. In exchange for a 28% increase in pay and a £1,000 performance bonus, plus a 37-hour week - which would not reduce the actual hours worked but would increase drivers' pay via overtime payments - it was proposed that possible driving turns be stretched to 12 hours (with 11 hours actual driving) with full rest breaks only after 5 and a half hours. (Continuous driving without any stops was still limited - to 3 hours - in these proposals). All allowances for mileage, DOO etc would be ended. Seniority was no longer to be a criterion for promotion.

These proposals, in fact, became known as the "Retirement Initiative" since they also threatened to remove any possibility for restricted drivers to carry on driving and pressurise older drivers to leave. No doubt the management were keen to clear out what they referred to as the obstructive "steam train attitude", in order to bring in their "reforms".

DRI was initially turned down, but again, step by step some of these conditions were introduced nevertheless, over the next few years.

Privatisation then came along, by 1996. The new private train operators set about getting the rest of these conditions imposed, especially since the redundancy programmes they embarked on among drivers meant they had to squeeze more out of the younger drivers who they kept on. But, being in many cases utterly ignorant of the railway business, they had hugely underestimated the number of drivers they would need to maintain even minimum services.

So a shortage of experienced drivers very soon reached critical levels. This gave a certain leverage to the unions representing the drivers. In exchange for a significant increase in wages, drivers' unions began making separate agreements with each new private train company, which would allow companies to run more trains with fewer drivers. Driving turns were lengthened to a possible maximum of 11 to 12 hours. Rest periods were cut, including by removing the extra "walking time" which used to be added on to the so-called Physical Needs Break. It was considered perfectly adequate that drivers should have only one proper 30 minute break during a turn of 9 hours. And a cut in the official working week to 37 hours and the increase in rest days was no more than a sleight of hand, since the ongoing shortage of drivers meant that overtime and rest day working continued to be the mainstay of the service. Drivers were expected to oblige and if they systematically refused they soon found themselves subject to all kinds of "disciplinary" measures on spurious "charges".

But no amount of restructuring or rest day working could solve the fundamental problem. With the typical short-termism of capitalists out for quick returns, the train company bosses were not prepared to engage in the unprofitable business of training enough new drivers, even with the reduced training period, (in some cases only 9 months) which many companies have implemented. It was far easier and, they reckoned, cheaper in the long run, to poach drivers from rival companies by offering a bigger pay-packet - and big enough to entice the union officials into agreeing even worse conditions.

South West Trains, for example (but it was one among many), got itself into an embarrassing and expensive mess in February 1997. Having made 71 drivers redundant, it had to admit it was now at least 10 drivers short - and pay a £750,000 fine for not providing an adequate service over the following two months. The overstretched drivers who remained, then engaged in a rest day working ban and 200 services a week had to be cancelled. In March 1997 SWT faced another £1m fine - because "a greater number of experienced drivers opted to leave". They did not care to admit that they had been treating their drivers like mules...

Arriva Trains Northern sacked its managing director in September 2001, because over 2,000 trains had been cancelled in the previous three months. The company had failed to take into account the fact that it takes time to train new recruits, after reducing driver numbers straight after it took over the company 18 months before.

The old ruse of divide and rule

Due therefore, to this self-inflicted shortage of train drivers, the "competitive" pay awards to train drivers, have resulted in a huge and widening pay divide between drivers, senior conductors (former guards, mostly) and all other rail workers.

Today drivers' pay has increased on average to nearly three times that of an average railman. And of course, given the fact that there are now 27 train operating companies, there are also 27 different rates of pay right across the board! South West Trains at present pays an ordinary platform worker a basic of £10,499 per year; a conductor £19,933 and a driver, £29,300. This is more or less the pattern in all companies - the lowest rate being £18,000 per year for drivers on Tyne and Wear Metro and the top rate, £38,000 basic, for Eurostar drivers. GNER pays drivers the second highest rate at £33,000. But the pay gap between the highest paid drivers and other railworkers in the same company is often even greater as a result. For instance an on-board steward on GNER's plush London-Edinburgh high speed service, (by no means the lowest paid GNER worker) today gets an annual basic wage of £11,320!

While this divisive situation has been worsening over a number of years, it is not likely to persist forever. Already pay deals have been negotiated which place newly qualified drivers on lower starting salaries. In the case of WAGN for instance, a two-year deal was recommended by the union, ASLEF and then accepted by referendum in 2001, which created three tiers of drivers' pay. Today an "experienced driver" will get £27,000, a "probationary driver" (fully trained but in the first 12 months of their solo driving) or a "driver still in training but with experience", £22,950. Trainees have always been on a much lower rate - in the case of WAGN this is £16,875 per year.

Agreement to the principle that a driver can be paid less in the first year of driving, of course establishes that the "old" trade union principle of the same rate for the same job no longer applies. What is to stop the same company coming back when this deal expires with a lower rate for drivers who are younger, older, or who refuse to work on Sundays - which has also become an issue of late, since Sunday driving, which used to be optional, is to become compulsory in some companies.

This policy on the part of train operators is taking place against a background of national "restructuring in the railways" - part of the government's plan to make privatisation more acceptable, given the catastrophic record so far in terms of safety, service level and of course the Railtrack bankruptcy. Indeed, if the current 27 train companies begin to merge, resulting in fewer but larger operators, this will help the remaining franchisees increase their share of state subsidies and therefore guarantee profits. It is not a co-incidence that the current strikes are taking place in some of the larger companies - in other words, those who are likely to maintain or enlarge their operations under new government proposals. It is clearly in their most immediate interests not to back down too quickly, given that they wish to keep their labour costs as low as possible and the workforce "in its place".

The union record plays the same tune as before

The three rail unions - the general union, the RMT, the drivers'-only union, ASLEF and the white collar union, the TSSA, have a long history of rivalry and non-co-operation. But there was one objective they had in common, in the run-up to privatisation. They all did their utmost to hang on to some form of bargaining machinery in relation to the new companies taking over. This was a choice made at the expense of building on a potential mobilisation of all rail workers against privatisation, and implied an acceptance of privatisation as a "fait accompli".

The first and most glaring example was the signal workers' dispute in the summer of 1994, on the eve of privatisation, when this dispute was deliberately confined to signal workers and their dispute over wages and restructuring. At the time it was a clear challenge to Major's Tory government's imposition of a public sector wage freeze. And very obviously this affected all railworkers and all public sector workers - especially those on chronic low wages, way below the already inadequate wages paid to signal workers themselves and also threatened with similar "restructuring".

Of course the strike by signal workers halted the whole network given their "sectional" strength. This was enough to allow the RMT to show its potential "muscle" as a union machinery which could call stops and goes, if it wished, in order to remind the government and the soon-to-arrive private rail franchisees of its importance. But it was the most cynical use of the signal workers' resilience. Worse, the signal workers eventual "victory" consisted of gaining lump sum payments for past productivity at the cost of a restructuring deal which meant shifts of 6 to as long as 12 hours, new tasks such as points maintenance, electrical repairs and painting signal boxes, loss of seniority rights, holidays and a reduction in overtime rates. When the RMT decided to call off this strike it was by no means on its last legs. However for it to have continued it would have required a breath of "new life" - namely, the extension of the strike to other workers. Which was precisely what the RMT as a "responsible" machinery was desperate to avoid.

More recently, after privatisation was a done deed, there have been occasions where the unions have been absolutely blatant about the primary importance of preserving their machinery of negotiation, as an aim in a dispute.

Of course privatisation turned all rail workers into private sector employees. It ended industry wide collective bargaining on wages and conditions, but also ended the local bargaining structures which existed in stations and depots, within the reach of the workforce. Today bargaining takes place at company level, - and at the level of subcontractors - between bosses and the unions concerned. So-called "Company Councils" exist in the larger companies with representatives from each "constituency" of the workforce who are delegated to negotiate on their behalf. If anything this has reinforced the already sectional attitude of the unions. So whenever there is a dispute with a company it is limited to this company, with few exceptions.

But take the "dispute" over changes in the Rail safety rule book which would have removed certain responsibility from guards, (or conductors) loading these onto drivers, which came to head in the call by the RMT for a one-day national guards strike in October 1999. Three train operating companies took the union to court and the strike was declared to be secondary action (which is of course illegal), since the dispute was not with them but with Railtrack, which is responsible for the rulebook! Besides the fact that a mere one-day strike over the highly emotive issue of safety in the context of the fatal rail crashes at Southall and Paddington, was gesture politics, what about the fact that this issue affected drivers directly as well?

Today both the RMT and ASLEF (although this is more likely to be a possibility for the latter) claim to be attempting to regain some form of national collective bargaining machinery - something which they no doubt imagine will be helped by the government's strategy to merge some of the train operating franchises in the future into "regional" monopolies... This is what has been offered by many commentators as the real reason for the current wave of strikes - however, since these are following the same pattern as all previous strikes for the time being - ie being kept sectional, and isolated, it is hard to see how on earth they could play any part in such a scheme.

But it is interesting to note that there have been a couple of large train operating companies which have been strangely "exempt" from the RMT's current series of strike ballots - like GNER, for instance. Not so strange, however, when you realise that the RMT, AMICUS and TSSA recently signed a "partnership" deal with this company.

The deal with GNER was struck in November 2001, and was described as "groundbreaking" by Bob Crow (today's new RMT general secretary, but an assistant secretary at the time), since it would give all grades within the company "a 35 hour week in two stages, giving them parity with train drivers", and ensuring "equal treatment for all GNER members, regardless of what work they carry out". According to the RMT, when drivers got a 35-hour week early last year it had caused a "huge amount of resentment" among other groups of staff. That is probably news to the very low-paid GNER workers. If Customer Service Assistants near the bottom of the wage scale feel resentful, it is precisely a resentment against their low pay, chronic under staffing, and long rostered turns - sometimes stretching to 13.5 hours! When they "gained" a 37- hour week in 1997, they were contractually obliged to work 42 hours and their basic wage was calculated on this basis. Given the fact that the actual number of hours worked today remains the same for the workforce, regardless, what gain is a 2-hour cut in the working week to a CSA who has been cleaning trains for £10,400 per year for 42 hours a week? On such a wage it is not possible to meet the cost of bills, rent and living expenses in London even with the addition of a £1,200 per annum "London Allowance".

Yet Bob Crow blithely continued in his press release hailing this deal: "as well as paving the way for or members to enjoy more leisure time, this deal should create more jobs to ensure the travelling public receive the same levels of service." In fact GNER's own glossy "special" edition of the company newsletter, explained that having already cut the working week by one hour, from January 2002, to 36 hours, the "partners" were working together on ways of funding a further reduction in the working week from 36 to 35 hours by January next year. Which sounds very much like one of those "self-financing deals" whereby workers pay for it in another way. There is absolutely no commitment anywhere in this agreement to recruitment of new staff nor is there a commitment to cut rostered turns or shift lengths. The first of its "six key principles" is about "changes in working practices". Or should one read "flexibility"? All the rest is pure waffle concerning "commitments" to employee improvement, better communication, "sharing and caring" and union reps and managers being on first name terms! The main theme song is "the ditching of the `us' and `them' mind set"!

So what about the current wave of strikes?

In a sense, both ASLEF and the RMT have chosen the issue of "parity" to declare disputes over wages - ASLEF by calling for comparable wages for drivers across companies and the RMT calling for the same percentage rise for non-driver railworkers as drivers have been given (though of course this differs between companies) This is the case for the strikes which have taken place or are at present taking place in SWT, among guards, ticket inspectors and platform workers, and in Arriva Trains Northern and ScotRail among conductors (ex- guards).

The SWT pay strike began with a 48-hour walk-out on 3 January followed by a further 48-hour strike on the 7th January by 2,100 RMT members. The offer to these workers ,which unlike that made to drivers, was linked to inflation, thus giving them a smaller rise.

As mentioned, the RMT chose to link their demands on behalf of their non-driver members to the drivers' pay deal, making a play for what they refer to as "parity". They argued that the same 7.6% percentage increase given to drivers should also be given to all other SWT workers over the same time period. They also wanted to have the possibility of the same "free collective bargaining".

One might well ask how such "parity", as a percentage rise would contribute towards narrowing the pay gap between drivers and non-drivers? All it can achieve is to make it worse! But given the rate of pay of those at the bottom of the grades - for the RO2 on £10,499 basic per year, for instance - even a 20% increase would not turn this into a decent wage, especially in the expensive South East!

The second 48-hour conductors' strike on Arriva Trains Northern - over parity with an 18% pay rise awarded to drivers - at least resulted in the ticket office workers organised in the white collar union, TSSA joining ranks with them on the 1 and 2 March. This was the first time in 30 years that TSSA members have carried out strike action. Which no doubt reflects the strength of feeling of the workforce over their 3% pay offer - 87% of them voted to strike!

Two arguments are usually used by the union leaderships as an excuse for their organisation of what amounts to disorganisation of their members who are in dispute.

Firstly that by organising 24-hour or 48-hour strikes on different days or rolling strikes, this minimises the loss in strikers' pay packets. But this is an illusion, especially if there are repeated 48- hour strikes being called. It is also something the companies are prepared to sabotage - by ensuring rosters are re-written to maximise the loss to workers' pay and also by actually introducing their own overtime bans, so that workers cannot "make up" their lost pay.

The second argument volunteered by union leaders for their refusal to call all-out strikes, is that one or two day strikes cause less disruption to the public and are less likely to upset them. Again, this is nonsense, because commuters are much more likely to understand a unanimous determination of workers to stand up for their rights, reflected in a continuous strike until these rights have been won - than unpredictable disruption - which in fact does not give the workforce the chance to demonstrate its determination and leaves commuters unable to organise their own timetables into the bargain.

Left bureaucrats are bureaucrats all the same

Certainly among a section of the more militant members of the RMT and ASLEF, the election of officials who claim to be on the "left" has generated some expectations.

Of course, it is true that both Bob Crow of the RMT and Mick Rix of ASLEF are known for their past membership of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party - although Mick Rix dropped out after he became General Secretary of the union and joined Blair's Labour Party. He then made a special effort to exhort all ASLEF members to vote Labour in the 2001 general election.

But as to the policies adopted by these so-called left leaderships, these are not fundamentally different in content from those followed by their predecessors.

In and of itself, seeking to restore national bargaining, which is the objective which they claim to be pursuing, is not likely to change the balance of forces in favour of the rail workers. National bargaining on the same lousy terms which already exist is what would inevitably come out of any such deal, in the absence of a general mobilisation across the railways.

Of course, one can hear the argument that such a mobilisation just is not on the agenda because workers are not ready for it. And that anyway, the anti-trade union legislation inherited from the Thatcher years and carefully maintained by Tony Blair is a major obstacle to unifying the whole workforce around the same demands.

Maybe so. But there is no obstacle that the collective mobilisation of workers cannot break through. The real issue today is to rebuild workers' confidence in their ability to win. It is not a question of whether the companies may be willing to sit down nationally with trade union officials, "left" or not. It is a question of forcing them to do so on the basis of the workers' own terms.

The present "left" leadership of the RMT and ASLEF are doing nothing to allow railworkers to measure their strength. This applies to the way the strikes are being conducted on behalf of those who are prepared to fight now, of course. But what about those workers who are not yet prepared to make any stand? Wouldn't a demonstration of strength and a convincing victory encourage them?

This failure is the trade mark of all bureaucrats, whatever their political background. Their preoccupation is never to strengthen the confidence of their members but to strengthen the hand of the union negotiating machinery.

The fight in the railways is long overdue. But if it is to happen and really turn the tide in favour of the workforce, railworkers will have to find a leadership from within their own ranks which is actually concerned first and foremost with their collective interests, and one which clearly understands that this is indeed a fight between "us" and "them".

3 March 2002