This article was originally published on 19 October. It is being republished in light of the recent news that more industrial action will be held across the Christmas period. Rail workers are planning to strike for 48-hours on 13-14 and 16-17 December, and 3-4 and 6-7 January.
The rising cost of living, coupled with the general shift to working from home that began during the pandemic, has seen workers push employers for better pay and changes to working conditions.
This past summer saw a number of unions across various industries form picket lines and take strike action. The most high-profile (and arguably the most disruptive) strikes were carried out by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union, led by Mick Lynch, its general secretary.
In an oral evidence session on Wednesday (12 October), members of the Transport Committee invited union leaders, and senior figures from across the travel industry, to discuss the summer of disruption in parliament.
Why were there rail strikes?
Lynch told the committee that one of the biggest drivers of the RMT strike action has been the effect that the rising cost of living is having on its members, who haven’t had a pay rise in three years.
But when his members strike on days they are due to work, they lose pay. Lynch said that it’s impossible to calculate a “ready-made figure” that accounts for how much members would have lost through strike action, as it depends on many factors. “But what we do know is that our members are fully committed to the action,” he told the committee, “because they don’t want their conditions ripped up that we’ve negotiated with these companies and their predecessors.”
But it’s not all about money, Lynch continued. “Everybody,” including journalists and MPs, he began, “is asking about money: ‘What would you accept?’ In most of these negotiations we don’t discuss money at all, because the menu [train operators] are putting in front of us is not acceptable.” It’s also about working conditions. Proposed job cuts in maintenance and signalling, reliance on drivers working overtime and planning around driverless trains are sticking points. Both unions and train operators “understand fully what is needed, and at the moment, [operators’] recipe of change is not acceptable to my union”, Lynch added.
What solutions are being proposed?
Speaking to the committee prior to Lynch, rail bosses acknowledged that services were being run on an unsustainable model – one that effectively relies on drivers constantly doing voluntary overtime. Richard Scott of the West Coast Partnership group, which includes Avanti, told the committee: “The industry as a whole – of which Avanti is no different – has always relied on rest-day working to deliver timetables,” which “abruptly” ended in July when drivers refused to continue to do so.
The change caused a significant number of delays to Avanti’s services, which Scott said was “not good enough”, adding that the company is aiming for a new system of operation, which doesn’t rely on overtime, to be functional by December.
Lynch argued that government subsidies given to rail operators during strikes, and an overall rail model in which companies “make profit no matter what happens”, blocks change. He described rail bosses as “a cartel” working with the government to generate profits “at no risk to themselves”. “That is ridiculous,” Lynch added, “and I might put it, a corrupt system – because there’s no incentive for them to make any [service or system] changes.”
Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, told the committee he believes that there is a “real focus” to “try and find common ground” between operators and unions. But he believes that the summer of strikes has actually slowed and hampered negotiations: “The fact the industrial action has been under way has been very consuming and has hardened positions, in some places.”
Are there more strikes to come?
Three more days of further action are scheduled for the 3, 5 and 7 November. The RMT have started a new ballot of its members on whether to continue industrial action into Spring 2023.
Averting a cycle of never-ending strike depends on the actions of Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the new transport secretary, Lynch believes. Unions have put proposals to operators but, ultimately, train companies need to have any changes, including pay rises, agreed by the secretary of state. “She [Trevelyan] needs to change their mandate at the negotiating table,” Lynch said in his closing remarks.
“So, it might need a few more bob, Mr Merriman,” Lynch continued, addressing Huw Merriman, the committee’s chair. “I’m not going to kid you – disputes get solved sometimes by more money.
“But it also needs a change in attitude and a change of stance [from government and operators]: stop asking us to accept things that they know we cannot accept.”