Unions stuck in history's sidings

Observations on rail

The RMT - the union of rail, maritime and transport workers - may use e-mail to send out its press releases, but that seems to be the only sign that it is living in the 21st century. The notices that plop all too frequently into my inbox reek of the industrial relations of the 1960s and 1970s, when the boss was the class enemy and the union the only protection for the working man. The constant threats of strikes and walkouts give the impression that Margaret Thatcher never happened.

But now the RMT has come unstuck. It called a series of strikes on the London Underground to coincide with the New Year, but far from producing the promised "chaos" it brought just a few station closures, notably on the Piccadilly Line.

What happened was that the RMT overstretched itself. Members usually back calls for industrial action in ballots because they feel it gives their negotiators a stronger hand, and in this case they simply weren't ready to follow through. Most recognised that the deal for a 35-hour week was beyond the wildest dreams of most Londoners, and so they crossed the picket line in droves.

Most RMT threats in recent years have not turned into action because managements have backed down, but now London Underground has called their bluff and their position has been considerably weakened.

In fact, while the right-wing press may portray the RMT as powerful, its bark is worse than its bite. One exasperated train operator said meeting with the union negotiators was rather like dealing with a "cartoon mafia". "They come into the meetings and whinge for half an hour about us not showing them proper respect. Most of it is just emotional nonsense, and you have to allow them to let off steam before they calm down and get down to business."

In London Bob Crow, the union's militant leader, is to the right of his executive members and therefore has been pushed into action he did not want to take. Executive members from the rail industry outside the capital tend to be more moderate and therefore it has been possible to cut deals with, for example, Network Rail.

The other blue-collar union in the industry is Aslef, which represents train drivers. Aslef has had its own difficulties recently with the sacking of Shaun Brady, its right-wing general secretary, by the left-dominated executive after a fracas at a barbecue, and allegations of a cover-up over financial irregularities. Now the decision to sack Brady has been reversed at an employment tribunal and the union's leadership is in limbo.

Aslef does, however, have real industrial muscle. It has managed to exploit the fact that railway privatisation broke up British Rail into two dozen train operators, thus severely weakening the management's ability to resist pressure over wages. Given that it takes nine months to train a driver, and more on top of that for the skills to operate a particular service, there is no possibility of employing scab labour. Consequently wages are nearly all above £30,000, with some reaching £35,000, high for a blue-collar job. In comparison, bus drivers earn at most £20,000.

So London Underground managers are seriously worried about the possibility of Aslef action, following a partial walkout over the sacking of a driver who went through a red light and broke the speed limit. Meanwhile there is likely to be more trouble with the RMT in London as the main contract with the Underground runs out in May, and a big battle over wages is on the cards. The 21st century still beckons for the rail unions.

Christian Wolmar's latest book, On the Wrong Line: how ideology and incompetence wrecked Britain's railways, has just been published by Aurum Press (£10.99)