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Why the Labour Party Must Back the RMT

Rail workers are striking for the pay they deserve and a better transport system for all of us – it’s time the Labour Party got off the fence and supported them.

Today, thousands of rail workers have begun the first of three days of nationwide industrial action in what is the biggest railway walkout in decades. To its shame, the Labour Party leadership has failed to support the striking workers.

In recent years, I have served as both Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary and Shadow Employment Rights Secretary. As someone who has spent a great deal of time working with rail workers and trade unions, I was appalled to learn that Labour Party frontbenchers have been banned from joining workers on picket lines this week. I know that my feelings are shared across the party, the wider labour movement, and among millions of working class people who recognise the importance of standing in solidarity with those on strike.

An Assault on Living Standards

RMT members are taking industrial action against an all-out assault on their livelihoods by a government that is determined to make working people pay for a crisis that is not of their making. Facing the biggest squeeze on household budgets since record began, they are opposing plans to impose below-inflation pay rates that amount to severe, real-terms pay cuts, worsening terms and conditions, and thousands of job cuts.

With inflation spiralling and pay having been stagnant for a decade, the nation’s workforce is suffering plummeting living standards. The government has made clear that it wants to see ‘pay discipline’, or, in other words, it wishes for the wages of working people to continue to fall in real terms. It is this context that makes the RMT dispute so significant and so worthy of support: it is a dispute about whether working people will accept falling living standards or whether they can successfully organise to defend themselves.

Working people are not responsible for soaring inflation, and cutting their pay won’t solve any of our economic woes. They should not be made to pay for a crisis that has been made by the profiteering of the rich, chaos in global supply chains, and the fallout of the conflict in Ukraine. The RMT’s demand that their members not be made poorer year-on-year is not asking the earth.

Standing in Solidarity

Conservative politicians are intent on using the rail strikes in a cynical attempt to distract from their own failures, by dividing working people and shifting the blame for the cost-of-living crisis away from their own door.

So, it’s essential for all of those across the labour and trade union movement, above all those of us elected to represent working people in parliament as Labour MPs, to stand shoulder to shoulder with RMT members in their struggle against job cuts, real-terms cuts to their wages, and attacks on their terms and conditions. For the leadership of the Labour Party—a party founded to be the political representative of the organised working class—to fail to provide its support to the RMT is both politically foolish and a denial of the very reason we exist, namely to speak for and defend working people. To absent ourselves from the pickets would mean to lose any command of the narrative, and our integrity to boot.

As the Tories and the right-wing media seek to frame the strikes in a way that pits working people against one another, it is essential that Labour marks out the true battle lines of the dispute. We must not be afraid to state where the antagonism really lies: namely, between the respective interests of the working and ruling classes, not between one set of workers and another. We must be clear that this is not a matter of a few selfish workers causing havoc for the rest of us; rather, the RMT members striking over the coming days do so because they represent the interests of people throughout the country, as they stand up against the few self-serving ‘elites’, who have done untold damage to our society over recent decades.

If they are successful in their fight, rail staff could pave the way for working people to make gains across other sectors of the economy, and this wave of grassroots empowerment is what those in positions of authority are afraid of most. By maintaining a strong and principled stance in the face of smears and outright lies from the Tories and their pals in the press, the RMT have set an example for all of us campaigning for a fairer and more just society. It is our duty, now more than ever, to stand in solidarity with these courageous trade unionists. Indeed, if Labour is to truly be the party of working people, then solidarity with those workers on the front line at this moment, when their livelihoods are threatened, is critical.

Of course, industrial action can often be the cause of major disruption, and being associated with the impact can have a political cost if those who ought to know better are unable or unwilling to set the story straight. Striking is a powerful tool for trade unions, but it is used as a last resort when negotiations fail and no other option is available, such as in the present instance.

As a result of government plans to slash £4 billion of funding from the railway, rail companies are seeking to implement thousands of job cuts, attacking pension schemes, and slashing critical safety inspections in order to facilitate mass redundancies, raising serious safety concerns for passengers and staff. These plans will have a major detrimental impact on the travelling public, and will destroy the rail system as we know it.

No doubt, all of these measures have come as a slap in the face for the thousands of RMT members who kept the railway and our country going through the pandemic, putting their own lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk by continuing to go out each day to work. Having clapped for these essential workers every week, it’s quite obscene to see Conservative MPs now using the fact that rail services continued throughout the pandemic as an argument for strike busting. 

What’s more, Boris Johnson’s intention to bring forward plans to enable train operating companies to replace employees with agency workers, makes a total mockery of his feigned outrage when similar tactics were employed by P&O Ferries bosses just three months ago. 

Instead, the lesson those in power should have learnt from the Covid crisis and the recent debacle over the rights and conditions of our seafarers, is that the same workers who transported goods and other key workers up and down the country now deserve a rise in their wages to keep up with soaring inflation, and the assurance of job security, with no diminution of their terms and conditions.

The RMT’s dispute is an opportunity for Labour to demonstrate whose side it is on in the cost-of-living crisis. It is also an opportunity to make the case against a broken privatised rail system which puts the interests of shareholders above that of the workers running the railway, leaves passengers paying extortionate fares, and has taxpayers shelling out millions of pounds in subsidies.

As Shadow Transport Secretary, I produced a blueprint for a renationalised railway, which would remove the political interference of politicians and include trade unions as part of its management structure, removing the antagonistic relationship between workers and management that has characterised privatisation, and would create a railway that was run in the interests of the public good not private profit. Now is not the time to shy away from making the case for the changes the railway and the nation so desperately need.

The country is at a pivotal moment. In the war being waged on the living standards of the working class, workers are organising to defend their pay, terms and conditions. In the words the General Secretary of the RMT, Mick Lynch, ‘If you’re not bargaining, you’re begging, and the British working class should not have to beg.’ 

The Labour Party leadership needs to stop fence-sitting and wholeheartedly back not just the RMT but all workers who are taking action to protect their livelihoods. If we do not provide support to working people, we should not expect their support in return. Labour must always have the courage of its conviction and provide rail workers with the support they deserve.