In 2015, the contract to operate Scotland’s passenger railways was handed to Abellio. Abellio is the private transport company which also operates Greater Anglia, East Midlands Railway, and several London Bus routes. Despite this, it is wholly owned by Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch state railway.
On winning the ScotRail franchise, Abellio immediately introduced cuts to services and staffing. After a strategic and initially successful attempt to salami-slice workers’ terms and conditions away, a key item on the company agenda was the removal of the overtime premium paid to staff for rest-day working.
Britain’s railways run on overtime. This has always been the case—and is broadly a good thing. Instead of capitalising from cheap agency labour, rail companies have traditionally offered existing staff the opportunity to undertake rest-day working on the basis of a union-agreed incentive.
Generally speaking, this arrangement suits workers. Those wanting more work and money can have them, and railway companies can meet surges in demand without having to figure costly levels of surplus staffing into the general roster. This is why Abellio’s attempts to withdraw from rest-day working agreements on ScotRail caused understandable irritation.
However, Abellio approached the issue carefully. Different grades of worker were played off against each other. Unions on the railway are at acute risk from this, and companies do their utmost to keep core grades like drivers and signallers content when enforcing cuts to general grade like cleaners and station staff.
But the cuts never stop at the bottom. By the time cuts reach guards, drivers, signallers or engineers, workforce solidarity has been broken. This was the strategy applied by Abellio, who ringfenced driver terms and conditions even while slashing terms elsewhere.
In a ballot last year, the RMT tested sentiment among ScotRail workers. However, the union balloted on a grade-by-grade basis, weakening the campaign; because of Abellio’s staggered approach to making cuts, some grades felt the campaign didn’t affect them, while others felt isolated.
Others justifiably felt that industrial action during the height of the pandemic was likely to be not just poorly received by the public, but would also have minimal impact on Abellio itself, since the company was getting astronomical state subsidies to run practically empty trains.
In an accidental case of anti-union laws working against the employer, the RMT was forced to wait a minimum of 12 months before balloting on the issue again. This meant the next legal opportunity to consider industrial action fell directly across the COP26 climate summit—and the RMT made it known they intended to ballot on an all-grades basis.
This time around, the RMT showed greater confidence and unity. Members now had time to see Abellio’s strategy, and the decision to ballot on an all-grades basis generated a sense of common purpose and solidarity.
Additionally, the belief that both Abellio and the state would be hesitant to spark a destructive industrial showdown while the world was watching COP26 gave members confidence. The sense that their reward for holding the line during the pandemic would be just another round of cuts also boosted enthusiasm for the campaign.
As soon as the RMT announced their intention to hold a fresh ballot, Abellio appeared at the negotiating table with an offer: 2.5 percent in year one, 2.2 percent the following year, conditional on savings made elsewhere, plus a £300 bonus for all staff working during COP26. The workforce stood firm, rejecting the cash bribe to hold out for an offer on their substantive grievance—Abellio’s unilateral withdrawal of the rest-day working premiums.
The strike ballot returned with an 83 percent ‘yes’ vote. Abellio gave workers a deadline for acceptance of their offer: 17:00 on 27 October 2021. The RMT held firm and Abellio blinked first.
A successful agreement has now been concluded without a day of strike action having taken place. Abellio returned to the table with an immediate 2.5 percent pay increase, a £300 bonus to all employees working during COP26, and a reinstatement of the rest-day working premium for a minimum period of 12 months.
The lessons for all workers are clear. Employers always act carefully in their attacks, maximising their chance of pushing through deep cuts with the minimum of resistance. It is only through a combination of high levels of grassroots motivation, courageous leadership, and strategic, applied leverage that workers can fight back and win at scale.
Small, limited disputes cost unions fewer resources and are easier targets for successful ballots. As such, they are a tempting tactic for unions, who are obliged to deliver material advances at the shop floor level if they are to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of their members.
But the lesson of the ScotRail dispute is that only through a large-scale operation involving all grades can the relentless tide of cuts be turned back. The RMT is an industrial union, formed by the collective effort of transport workers to defend each other across an entire industry.
That is why rejecting sectionalism and embracing strategic, industrial unionism is the only sustainable path for labour organising in the long run. The workers on ScotRail have shown that it can be done.