If you had a sense that we were witnessing something quite extraordinary in recent weeks with the campaign of attacks against rail workers and their trade union, you weren’t wrong.
Ever since 40,000 members of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, the RMT, voted for strike action late last month, the barrage from the media and political establishment has been relentless.
At times, it has been almost comical. On his TalkTV show Piers Morgan Uncensored, Britain’s pre-eminent professional controversialist took RMT general secretary Mick Lynch to task for his Facebook profile picture.
It’s a picture of the Hood from Thunderbirds… I’m just wondering where the comparison goes. He was obviously an evil, criminal, terrorist mastermind, described as the ‘world’s most dangerous man’… are you comparing yourself to the Hood?
Lynch batted this question away easily enough—the Hood profile picture, incidentally, is a reference to his bald head and prominent eyebrows—but it was a taste of things to come. Soon afterwards, he was accused by Croydon South MP Chris Philp of walking out of pay talks to attend a protest on a day when talks were not even scheduled.
In another interview, Jeremy Kyle suggested to RMT assistant general secretary Eddie Dempsey that Mick Lynch earned ‘a package’ of £124,000 per year. ‘You know that’s a fact,’ he said. Except, of course, he didn’t. Jeremy Kyle was including employer national insurance contributions among a litany of other irrelevances.
But this was far from the most lurid accusation levelled at the union. That accolade belongs to Dorset MP Chris Loder, who took to parliament to accuse leading members of the RMT of being agents of Vladimir Putin and Russia. They were, he proclaimed, ‘bankrolling’ the Labour Party—an organisation the RMT disaffiliated from in 2004.
Throughout this month, media commentators and politicians have sought to frame the strike as a matter of privilege. ‘A train driver is paid, on average, £59,000,’ transport minister Grant Shapps told Sky News, ‘a nurse is paid £31,000.’ Given that disparity, how could these greedy RMT workers demand more?
When he said that, Shapps knew that the dispute was not about train drivers but 40,000 workers across a vast range of jobs on the railway. He also knew their median salary: £31,000. A clearer example of misdirection you would struggle to find, but at least the nurses can look forward to his support when they ballot.
The truth is, RMT workers are not earning extravagant sums, but they are somewhat better paid than the average worker. And there is a very good reason for this: rail workers are some of the best organised in the country, and probably the most prepared to take action to defend their terms and conditions.
As other parts of the British economy have been reduced to a Wild West of zero-hour contracts and bogus self-employment, Uberisation and foodbanks supplementing salaries, rail workers have insisted on their rights to withdraw their labour if bad terms are forced on them without their consent.
In Low Pay Britain, very few workers go on strike. In 1979, ONS figures show that around 4 million workers participated in industrial action. In 2017, it was just 33,000. Successive rounds of anti-union laws have made it harder to strike effectively—removing the right to solidarity action, enforcing draconian rules on pickets and imposing criminal penalties on trade unions.
One of the more recent anti-union laws stipulated that workers could only go on strike if more than 50 percent voted in favour on a turnout above 50 percent. If the same turnout rules were applied to politics, the entire slate of recent local elections would have been void, but politicians never face those kinds of obligations.
These laws are designed to prevent strikes, and the inability to strike effectively has massively weakened workers’ position, leading to the longest wage stagnation in Britain since the 1800s. But the RMT and its 40,000 members didn’t just beat the threshold, they smashed it: 89 percent voted in favour on a 71 percent turnout.
This result sent shockwaves through the establishment. They know the lesson the RMT offers to millions of other workers across the country: that the best way to get the pay and conditions you deserve is to organise collectively and fight for them.
That is a powerful message at a time when so many people are facing permanent reductions in their living standards. And in an economy of 11 percent inflation, that’s what the lack of a real pay rise is. For some workers, it means cutting back on the things that make life worth living; but for many, it will mean choosing between heating and eating.
The palpable injustice behind this is a tinderbox that threatens to explode the foundations of British politics in the coming years. Workers have not driven price increases, in fact, even Boris Johnson has acknowledged that wages were too low in recent years. So why should they accept further austerity now?
The establishment is petrified that they won’t. That’s why they hate the RMT and the example it provides. They aren’t afraid that rail workers might get a pay rise when nurses or teachers or cleaners don’t; they are afraid that those workers might take a lesson from the RMT and demand a pay rise too.
In fact, it has already begun. From transport workers in TSSA, ASLEF and Unite to posties, engineers and call centre workers in CWU, teachers in the NEU and healthcare workers in UNISON, and civil servants, ballots are either underway or imminent. Workers are finding their confidence and, in the process, fear is changing sides.
As we wrote back in April, this will be the hottest summer of industrial action in many years. And if the RMT wins their dispute, there’s every reason to believe millions of others will be emboldened to fight for what they deserve too.