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Rail strike threat exposes government failure

If workers’ pay rises can’t be achieved by collective bargaining, the pressure on government to help those worst off will grow.

By Freddie Hayward

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) is threatening to bring the country “to a standstill” over pay and working conditions if its members vote for strike action in a ballot that closes Tuesday (24 May).

The government is preparing to soften the impact of any action. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, has told the Sunday Telegraph the government is poised to draw up plans to require a minimum number of railway staff to work during a strike – a measure that was included in the Conservative’s 2019 election manifesto. Requiring a minimum level of service would protect the movement of goods and people around the country, but it would also undercut the effectiveness of strikes. The unions have widely condemned the move and threatened to respond.

The dispute will indicate whether the unions can secure pay rises commensurate with inflation. This seems unlikely. Today, low union membership means pay rises aren’t keeping up with inflation, as David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, set out in the New Statesman last week. Union membership has fallen from 13.2 million in 1978 to 6.6 million in 2020. And the most recent figures show regular pay fell on the year by 1.2 per cent. Why? Partly because low union membership reduces the bargaining power of employees to request pay rises.

The dispute with the RMT presages a potential summer of discontent for the government as the cost-of-living crisis worsens and calls for increased pay grow. The effects of this will only become more stark: Michael Lewis, the chief executive of E.On, warned on 22 May that 40 per cent of people could be forced into fuel poverty by October, when the energy price gap will rise again. But if pay doesn’t rise through bargaining between companies and workers, then the pressure on the government to help those on lower incomes will only increase.

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