- Interview by
- Taj Ali
The Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) has called further strike action as part of a long-running, bitter dispute with train operating companies over pay, job losses and cuts that would destroy the railway as we know it.
The dispute has gone on for almost a year, costing the British economy northwards of £1.25 billion and leaving industrial relations on the railway at an all-time low. RMT strike action also galvanised the trade union movement, with its members spearheading the busiest year of industrial action in decades as the cost of living crisis spurred workers across Britain to walk out over pay.
With no end to the dispute in sight, and with the near-unprecedented disruption on Britain’s railway set to continue, Tribune sat down with RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch to get the latest on the dispute, how the government is scuppering negotiations and why rail workers are prepared to keep on fighting.
Since the beginning of the dispute, you’ve repeatedly said that the government has torpedoed your negotiations with the Rail Delivery Group [representing train operating companies] and blocked them from offering a deal. Can you explain their role in this dispute?
The train operating companies we’re dealing with are completely controlled by the Department for Transport. Train operating companies used to run what are called franchise contracts, where they were able to run a business within certain parameters and had the ability to make deals within reason. They could suffer losses if there was a dispute or if business went down. When Covid came along, they lost all their business and went into emergency measures. Now they’re largely in passenger service contracts. Those contracts explicitly say that the Secretary of State for Transport is responsible for their industrial relations mandate, meaning the government determines what they can negotiate.
The Secretary of State is completely in charge of negotiations. If we make a suggestion that might move the dispute on, or a suggestion is developed mutually, which does sometimes happen, the train operating companies can’t make a response in the normal sense amongst themselves. Usually, you would take a quick adjournment; you might check your finances and your policy and come back and say, ‘We think we can move on that.’ Instead, they have to go back to the Department for Transport and get a written instruction.
So you feel the frustration from their side too?
They [the train operating companies] are frustrated and they feel the shackles they’ve taken on. They can’t do anything without referring back to the government. They’re probably used to it now. And it’s not just ‘Is this OK?’; it goes for a full check in Whitehall. It’s not just the Department for Transport; it’s checked across various government departments. We know for definite that it goes to Number 10. Anything serious, such as a mandate for negotiations, goes into the Prime Minister’s red box.
That sounds like a very long and complex process.
It certainly is. It can take a few weeks, and I know that frustrates the Rail Delivery Group. They’ve told me that they cannot get an answer. Not even a ‘go’ or ‘no-go’ or a red, green or amber to develop talks. That means the talks have no energy in them. When you’re doing negotiations, whether that’s business or industrial relations, you have to get a bit of momentum going because otherwise, you don’t make any deals. If you abandon it for two weeks every time, you’ll be there forever. Every time we have talks, they need to get written permission to agree a deal, or they get vetoed. No matter what Huw Merriman [Minister of State for Rail] or Mark Harper [the Secretary of State for Transport] say, they are directly involved, and it’s in the written contracts all these companies have.
Now, the reason the train operating companies don’t object to that is because they get a guaranteed income without risk. They’ve got no capital at risk. Usually, if you’re running a private company, your money is at stake, and if that business goes down, in theory, you lose your money. They don’t have that risk. If their takings go up, their profit goes up with it, so it doesn’t bother them that much because there’s no risk.
When we look at the initial offer made, there were conditions attached to the pay agreement, including the imposition of driver-only trains, which they now seem to have abandoned. What do you think is stopping them from abandoning some of those other preconditions, such as the closure of all ticket offices? Why is there a stubbornness on those aspects of the proposals?
Because that’s at the heart of what they believe. I think they’ll try to come back in the next few years on some of the train guards stuff that we’ve disputed. They just dropped the idea that it can be pursued because we told them there will never be an agreement.
They’ve never consulted the public about whether they want their booking offices closed. It’s Tory party dogma. Some of the train operating companies would want to shut some of their ticket offices to reduce their overhead costs, but I don’t believe they want to shut all of them. The government is saying, ‘You must shut all of them.’
Where is this insistence coming from? There were significant financial losses during the pandemic. Would it be fair to describe this as a cost-cutting exercise to recoup losses made during the pandemic?
It is a cost-cutting exercise, but they’re using the pandemic [as an excuse]. This comes down to what kind of railway you want and what kind of public services you want. Do you want them to have a friendly face and human aspect where people go to a station and have well-trained, motivated staff dealing with their issues, or do you want it all to be based on a completely soulless online app? They want to cut staffing to the bone, which cuts overheads for the company and provides a return for private sector operators.
This is a battle for the future of the railway. We had that in London. Public transport in London was completely gutted before Ken Livingstone became mayor. A lot of women and other groups didn’t like travelling on it. London was becoming depopulated. Transport itself is a liberation vehicle. It liberates working-class communities. If it’s cheap, affordable, safe, well-scheduled, and all the rest of it, you certainly get an uplift. Livingstone brought in schemes to revive public transport. If you look at London Overground in particular, which has gone through a massive revival under a succession of mayors, due to long-term investment but also staffing. It’s well–lit and well–presented, so it depends on what kind of railway you want.
The Tories just want to cut it to the bone because they’re not interested in it. They don’t use it; it’s not in their communities. Their people are driving around in Range Rovers. If you’re living in Godalming, Guildford or North Yorkshire, you probably don’t care as much about the state of public transport.
In late April, you announced further strike action and that the RDG had reneged on a previous promise they made during negotiations. Can you explain what happened?
So, we received a document which set out that we could get a stage one payment, which is quite modest. It was five percent or £1,750 minimum, which for our lowest paid workers would give them 7-9 percent depending on what they earn. The understanding was that we’d take that and then move into stage two negotiations to discuss the so-called modernisation. We’d bank the money and then go into further negotiations over those proposals.
If those negotiations broke down, our dispute would still be live. We were talking to our members about the offer, and we made video clips explaining it. There was a discussion going right around our union, and then, as we were poised to make a decision, they phoned us up and said, ‘You need to come and see us because what you’re telling your people is not what we’re gonna do.’ They told us that we have to declare that our dispute is over to get this down payment. We said, ‘That’s not our understanding,’ and I think that they suddenly realised what they had let themselves in for.
Maybe the government had realised what this document meant to us. In our view, they have reneged on a framework that had been established. Now we’re at a deadlock. We’ve got no proposals. We haven’t got a document that’s jointly understood or jointly acceptable, and they’re not talking to us, so we’ve called more action.
There have been calls from some quarters calling for escalation, arguing that one-day strikes will not move the employer. Have you considered such a strategy?
We consider all options, but we also listen to our people. Our members have put a lot into this. They’re not great earners. Some on the railway get good wages but the vast majority are on very modest wages. We know this is going to be and has been a long-term dispute, so we have to be careful with what we ask our members to do. We have to keep people on board, and the type of action we call has to sustain the campaign. There are calls for escalation in our union, but there are also calls for going steady. The national executive committee that makes these decisions needs to balance the demands from different voices. They’ll make the decisions on that basis. The people saying we should escalate are usually not the ones taking the action.
Have you had any talks since calling the latest strike action? I know you called for a joint summit to resolve the dispute. That doesn’t appear likely.
I don’t think that’s going to happen. I can’t imagine there’s gonna be formal talks. There may be a phone call or two but I don’t see that there will be a convened negotiation. They’re [the government] preparing for ASLEF and RMT rail strikes. There’s a lot of action coming in that has gone under the radar, but I’m sure when it gets to the weekend, they’ll be ramping up the news and calling us greedy rail workers all over again—all the clichés.
This dispute has cost the economy over £1.25 billion so far. Rail Minister Huw Merriman has come out and said it would cost the government less to settle the dispute. Given this, why would the government seek to prolong this dispute?
It plays across their whole attitude towards public sector pay and their attitude towards inflation. This 5 percent thing is fairly common in other disputes too. There are variations on it, and there are some protections for the lowest paid, but they are very similar, and they don’t want to step out of line. What’s different for the railway compared to everyone else is that the offer we get is not unconditional. They’re not saying to the nurses and those in other professions, ’You have to give us something back.’ Our people haven’t had a pay rise for four years now. So, they’re saying to us that not only are we not making up any of those lost earnings against inflation, but if you want even this five percent and the four percent that they’ve offered for the second year, you have to accept detrimental changes to working practices and conditions.
A cynic may argue that they’re not pay rises at all because they’re being paid for by job losses. Our offer is modest at best. Some of our members would say it’s shit. Others would accept it as a pay rise, but they’re not prepared to make the sacrifices demanded of them. They’re certainly not willing to give up and say the dispute is over. What we want to do is talk but with the option of our dispute being live, because if we give up on our dispute before we go into negotiations or consultations, we’ve disarmed ourselves. We’ve got no defence against their attacks. Now, I think the employers understand that because they’re negotiators. The government just wants us to surrender and take the terms dictated post-surrender, and we’re absolutely not going to do that.