The SNP Is Failing Rail Workers – And the Planet

Earlier this month, five Glasgow SNP MSPs criticised a ballot for industrial action during COP26 – proving how hollow their commitment to both climate action and fair work really is.

ScotRail trains operated by Abellio arrive and depart for Glasgow Central station in December 2016. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

As part of their strategy to win independence, the SNP has for years courted the trade union movement, doing all it could to bring disgruntled former Labour-supporting union members onside. It is an approach that has had a significant amount of success, and saw large numbers of trade unionists voting ‘Yes’ in the 2014 referendum.

I was one of them. However, the events of this month will cause many trade union members to have a serious rethink about how they deal with the SNP.

My union, the RMT, has been in dispute with Abellio Scotrail over pay for more than six months. All we are asking for is basic pay justice and equality for conductors with other grades. As we are obliged to under the Tory anti-trade union laws, we have recently re-balloted our members after six months of action. They overwhelmingly voted in favour of continued action. To be clear, our members mandate us – not so-called ‘London bosses’, as claimed earlier this month by five SNP MSPs.

Over the term of the Scotrail franchise Abellio’s approach to industrial relations has been a disaster for Scotland’s railways. The morale among key rail workers who have kept the country moving throughout the pandemic is at rock bottom. But it would be wrong to lay the blame solely at the door of Abellio: the Scottish government is ultimately to blame here. They could settle our pay dispute today, but for all their praise of key workers going beyond the call of duty during the pandemic and the First Minister’s fine rhetoric around ‘fair work’, Scottish Ministers have chosen not to intervene, and continue to allow Abellio to treat our members in a disgraceful way.

Abellio’s aggressive, bullying, anti-union stance is the worst I have seen in my time as a trade union official. They refuse to negotiate with the RMT, and the government claims it has nothing to do with them – when actually it has everything to do with them.

It is worth remembering that the SNP Scottish government did nothing to intervene and take into public ownership the Caley Engineering works at Springburn. Coincidentally, one of the MSPs involved in trying to undermine our members, Bob Doris MSP, was the local MSP at Springburn. We should not forget how he sat back and did not argue for his own government to save the Caley. Instead, he allowed the Caley to close, and saw with it the loss of 160 years of railway history and 260 highly paid jobs.

All of this is set against a context of change and uncertainty in our railways. Abellio have made such a mess of managing Scotrail that they have had the franchise removed from them earlier than planned, and a public operator of last resort will replace them next year. What that operator looks like is still to be explained by the Scottish government.

It is clear that just becoming a public operator will not suffice in itself. What matters is the type of public railway that is put in place: we need a cast-iron commitment to the creation of a world-class railway that will serve the community, create economic opportunities, employ enough well paid and valued staff, and help the Scottish government meet its public policy objectives and environmental targets.

However, the recent pronouncements of Abellio Scotrail and government insider Professor Iain Docherty suggest that rather than improving and investing in rail services, there is a plan to cut investment, services, and jobs.

It is a scandalous state of affairs that Abellio Scotrail, just six months out from losing the franchise due to their mismanagement, is still given a central role in designing the future of rail services in Scotland. The intent of their recent ‘fit for purpose’ document that has gone out to public consultation is clear: using the pandemic as cover, they want to cut 300 trains a day and the jobs that deliver these services. Yet Scottish Minister Graeme Dey signed off the press release and seemingly endorsed this document, stating: ‘This consultation exercise offers a real opportunity for customers and businesses to help shape a reliable and responsive timetable change from May 2022.’

This consultation came hot on the heels of the now infamous Docherty report, commissioned by Abellio Scotrail. Docherty, a former SNP candidate, helped the Scottish government design their Transport Strategy. In it, he says Scotland should be reducing government investment/subsidy and ‘at the very least  require revisiting of difficult and long avoided questions of the size and role of the workforce, and whether legacy business activities such as the provision of ticket offices is viable in future’. In other words, Docherty and Scotrail want to cut jobs and services. To what extent the Scottish government agrees is a moot point.

This agenda stands in stark contrast to the fundamental importance of enabling and incentivising a shift from cars to trains and other modes of sustainable clean transport. If Scotland is serious about delivering on its environmental targets, it has to focus on cutting emissions from transport (the biggest polluter in Scotland) and get people out of cars (the biggest polluter by some distance within transport) and onto decarbonised trains and buses. How can it do this when cutting services and staff? The truth is that it can’t.

As a trade union, we want Scotland to meet its environmental obligations. Enhancing—not cutting—rail services will help us do that, but we are also duty bound to act on the mandate of our members, and that is what we intend on doing. In a few months’ time, Glasgow will host the COP26 summit. The world’s eyes will be on the city. According to the five SNP MSPs who criticised the RMT earlier this month for having the audacity to stand up for our members, we would embarrass Scotland if we were to take industrial action during COP26.

Let me be clear: what is embarrassing, and what will embarrass Scotland, is a government that talks about fair work but refuses to intervene and ensure we have good services and fair pay on the railways, and a government that hosts COP26 and seeks to parade its environmental credentials while at the same time implicitly endorsing cuts to services. That is genuinely embarrassing and hypocritical.

Standing up for our members means we will be targeting our leverage strategy around COP26. As a result, we have been attacked by SNP MSPs: John Mason, James Dornan, Bill Kidd, Bob Doris, and Kaukab Stewart. Let me ask these people the following reasonable questions:

  • Why did none of you contact me or the RMT before issuing your nonsensical statement?
  • Do you know that Abellio Scotrail employees have not had a pay increase in two years, despite having to work all through the pandemic?
  • Do you understand it is not RMT’s ‘London bosses’ who decide on industrial action, but a democratic ballot of our Scotrail members?
  • Are you aware that our members recently voted by a massive 80 percent to continue their action in a reballot?
  • Will you meet with the RMT to discuss the issue of pay at Scotrail?

The SNP have been very smart over the last two decades in blaming everything on someone else – but now the focus is well and truly on them. Trade unionists have long memories; we don’t forget easily or quickly. Messers Mason, Dornan, Kidd and Doris and Ms Stewart, take note.