On 1 December, members of transport union RMT began 27 days of strike action in South Western Rail. The issue is the presence or not of guards on trains. The company runs services mostly across the south-west of London and south western home counties, making the Waterloo terminus so busy and critical that the Crossrail 2 project was designed, in part, to specifically relieve it.
How could things go so wrong? And how could passengers be disrupted on such a scale? Is this a case of the union “demanding that nothing change in a world where rapidly everything is doing so”?
No surprise that the truth is more complex than headlines and soundbites.
Let’s start by taking a step back. Strike action is never the preferred option and is fraught with risk and difficulties. First off, people tend to forget that those striking are also those who use the service themselves. Rail workers and their families need to get to and from work, get disrupted and delayed just like everyone else. They also have bills to pay and Christmas presents to buy (and some commentators seem to be unaware striking workers don’t get paid). Going on strike is not and never has been a cost-free option.
Second, contrary to some popular opinion, strikes don’t just happen. Stereotypical “union barons” do not simply click their fingers and everyone downs tools. There are huge hurdles unions have to overcome before legal industrial action can start – a ballot, a turnout thresh-hold, a majority thresh-hold, notice given to the employer, and so on. It’s not cheap, and it’s not quick. Even if your members are overwhelmingly engaged and committed, the law is as fixated on process as it is on outcome. Just ask the CWU, recently injuncted from taking action in Royal Mail despite a 75% turnout and 97% vote in favour. And it’s worth noting that RMT cancelled industrial action over the self-same issue earlier this year.
And third, striking is always high risk. You can’t know how solid the action you plan will be, what the employer will do, how the public will react. But the RMT is seeking to address risks to their members’ jobs and to public safety in an environment where the feared consequence of not doing so has been set down in job losses and increasing accident rates.
Ok, ok you say. But what has stoked this particular industrial relations fireball then?
The question of a second person on a train, and what they do, has been a long-running issue across all of the UK’s TOCs (that’s Train Operating Companies to you and me).
In many, an agreement has been reached – some after industrial action, some more directly. Union membership is strong, the case well-prepared and passengers generally understanding.
South Western is a relative new franchisee. Negotiations have been taking place over many months. It hasn’t always been easy, and two previous rounds of industrial action were scheduled and then called off over the summer. Trust has been eroded, with what amounts to allegations of bad faith starting to litter the ground.
Despite a tense backdrop, it seems that the two sides had eventually reached an agreement through, but then things went sour. The union says South Western pulled the deal. South Western say the union kept “moving the goalposts”. Not even the conciliation service ACAS was able to get things back on course.
A couple of observations are appropriate here:
First, “the devil is in the detail” is a well-worn phrase, but nevertheless true. There is a world of difference between South Western accepting that there needs to be a second person on each and every train – and an agreement on specifically what that second person does (and therefore what contribution they make to safety and how easy it may be to remove them at some point in the future).
Second, the union has observed a high level of contact between the company and government and implied a political interest in the matter, according to RMT’s Steve Hedley on the BBC’s Today programme and certainly, aspects of South Western’s government-backed contract are relevant in the current situation.
RMT recently revealed that the company can claim up to £86m to compensate for revenue lost to strikes is of fundamental importance – If true (and no one is denying it) there seems no incentive to negotiate a settlement, and every encouragement to provoke a dispute. It gives a new meaning to “unhelpful.”
Further intervention has come in the form of a Conservative Party pledge to “ban all out rail strikes”, apparently on the basis of the disruption that they cause. Even in the context of a General Election campaign, this is significant and reckless.
Setting aside the current (human) rights of rail workers, if the service they provide is worthy of such attention, then what others are also in that bracket?
As political intervention becomes more explicit, more barriers to a resolution are erected. That is clearly problematic in the short-term. But we cannot ignore the political dimension: UK rail regulation has an operational model that arguably miscalculates the true cost of running an efficient, safe, service-orientated rail network. In a cost-cutting, profit-driven scenario, the pressure to reduce staff will be ever-present. This is one reason why the union is right to link the passenger experience to its members’ jobs.
The stakes are undeniably high. But when any group of workers say things are so bad that they are prepared to take virtually a months’ worth of industrial action, we all ought to listen.
Is there any way out of the current stand-off? The General Election result could be decisive, but that’s a relatively long time to wait. As I write, the London Chamber of Commerce has pleaded for fresh talks. Both sides say, conditionally, they are willing to engage. Ultimately there needs to be a negotiated settlement – because the alternative is bad news for all concerned. Not for the first time, it seems not everyone gets that.
Photocredit: Adrien LeDoux/Unsplash