The history of the railway tells us much about Britain as a nation.
Over the years, rail has both driven and reflected wider social and economic trends: the locomotive was the most famous incarnation of the steam engine which powered the industrial revolution, the creation of British Rail following nationalisation was an icon of the post-war consensus, and privatisation has epitomised the era of neoliberalism in which we live.
The railway is once again in a period of change that speaks to the state and direction of the country. 40,000 rail workers across 16 companies have just voted to strike, setting the stage for the biggest walkout since at least 1955 and possibly since the 1926 General Strike.
The industrial dispute led by their union, the RMT, covers a range train operating companies, the mostly private businesses which run passenger services, as well as Network Rail, the publicly owned company which manages and owns the infrastructure.
What marks the dispute as so significant is not only the scale — set to bring the network to a grinding halt, causing unprecedented disruption over the summer — but what it means for the ability of trade unions to respond to the cost of living crisis and to resist the government’s wider economic agenda.
The immediate background to the dispute is the government’s plan to dramatically slash funding for the railway — around £2 billion from both this and the next financial year. After having to step in to provide support during the pandemic to prevent the collapse of an essential public service, the Treasury says it wants to ‘recoup’ what it has spent.
This began earlier in the year with heaping more of the cost of travel onto passengers by raising fares by the highest amount in nine years, and next in the firing line are the jobs, terms and conditions of rail staff.
Facing the biggest squeeze on household budgets since record began, RMT members employed by train operating companies are refusing to accept years of pay freezes that amount to severe real terms pay cuts, threats to impose worse terms and conditions, and an agenda that will result in the destaffing of ticket offices and stations.
It is no secret that pay restraint is a wider government and Bank of England policy, but wages and job security of rail staff have been in the crosshairs for some time.
The RMT suspects with good reason that the government’s intention is to remove their right to collective bargaining and impose a Pay Review Body to give ministers the power to set pay, which has resulted in miserly increases for public sector workers that have fallen significantly behind wage growth in the private sector.
Transport minister Wendy Morton hinted at this recently, saying ‘the salary of railway workers has increased beyond that of those in nursing, teaching, firefighting and policing’, ignoring that rail workers are largely employed by private companies.
At Network Rail, the demand for ‘efficiency’ savings of £400 million a year will result in 2,500 job losses set to be achieved through vast compulsory redundancies. Many of these posts will be cut from ‘maintenance’ work that keeps infrastructure safe and reliable.
The company was begrudgingly taken back into public ownership in 2002 after its predecessor Rail Track was found to have profiteered at the expense of performing essential works, resulting in a series of fatal disasters. If allowed to go ahead, the job cuts would mean reducing inspections and scheduled works as a part of cost-cutting exercises that would endanger the travelling public.
The causes of the railway’s dysfunction are largely attributable to underfunding and the legacy of privatisation, and the current dispute is a fine example. When Rail Track was nationalised, Network Rail took on the debt it had acquired, the servicing of which now costs £2 billion per annum alone — the same amount the government is demanding be cut from the entire railway in each of the next two years.
All the while, huge profits are taken out of the system: around £725 million leaks out of the railway every year, from train operation to subcontracting to the renting of trains at exorbitant cost. If the government’s true priority was to save money, it could be achieved through nationalisation and insourcing.
All of this is taking place under the guise of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ creation of what he calls ‘Great British Railways’, a half-baked initiative that will extend public regulation of the railway — itself an acknowledgment of the failure of privatisation — while maintaining the profiteering off passengers and the public purse.
The government wishes to retain and expand on its control over the railway acquired during the pandemic, but this approach extends only so far as is necessary to prevent a dysfunctional system from collapsing while maintaining the profitability of private interests. To this end, breaking the power of the rail’s workforce — a vestige of strong trade union activity in an anti-union economy — is vital.
It is in this context that the government is threatening the introduction of new laws imposing ‘minimum service levels’ to force staff to work throughout strikes, robbing working people of a right that is crucial in a free society.
This new approach would see the profits of private train companies, contractors, and bondholders in the asset economy protected; at the same time, rail staff will lose their jobs or be forced into more insecure working practices, and safety will be compromised. And because attacks on staff and fare rises are happening before usage has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the railway’s recovery will be choked off and the damage done by the past two years — like reductions in services — will be made permanent, putting the system in decline.
In the face of these plans, the demands of the RMT union at the centre of the dispute — that there be no pay freezes, a guarantee against compulsory redundancies, and a commitment that no detrimental changes to working practices or terms and conditions will be imposed on its members — are not just in the interests of its members or even the railway as a whole but of all workers whose livelihoods and are threatened by wider government policy to suppress pay and increase insecurity.
The politically motivated desire for a confrontation with rail unions, however, is not shared across Britain. To differing extents, devolved governments recognise the damage the government’s plans will cause and are eager to avoid the disruption of strike action.
On the parts of the railway that enjoy degrees of autonomy from Westminster, pay rises have been negotiated and disputes avoided; while the SNP has outright stated its opposition, raising concerns over safety and economic impacts.
That London, Wales and Scotland are largely avoiding the levelling-down that will be inflicted on English regions lays bare that these plans are a consequence of ideological determination.
What is impressive is that the organising of the RMT has succeeded in the face of anti-trade union laws that were designed specifically to prevent industrial action on this scale. The determination of rail workers to overcome the obstacles they face in taking on their bosses is testament to an understanding that the struggle on the railway goes beyond just defending their own livelihoods or even preventing the degradation of a public service.
It is a stand against the assault being waged on the working class across Britain, and a success for the RMT in their battle will show that all workers have the power to resist if they are willing to organise and fight for it.