Base must take control of UK railway strike

Six months after nationwide railway strikes launched a “summer of discontent” against the Conservative government, an urgent discussion is needed among railway workers on a strategy for victory.

Striking railway workers picket during the recent UK national railway strike at the Cowlairs maintenance depot in Springburn, north of Glasgow, on June 25, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union is currently voting with 50,000 members to renew the powerful strike mandate they issued in May. The Socialist Equality Party calls for an emphatic YES vote, but in doing so it is necessary to take stock of the struggle to date.

Railway workers are demanding unified action, but officials from the RMT, train drivers’ union ASLEF, TSSA and Unite are working to divide their members and prevent the necessary industrial and political offensive that can defeat the historic onslaught of the Conservative government on jobs, wages, conditions, security and pensions.

Railway unions continue to insist that limited industrial action will force the Tory Government and employers to the negotiating table, where a deal can be reached on the implementation of the Great British reprivatization scheme Railways.

Just a few weeks ago, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said the union’s strategy was working: “Your determination has brought employers to the bargaining table. The government, which controls the negotiations, has also started meeting with your union.

Rail, Maritime and Transport Union General Secretary Mick Lynch speaking at the Enough is Enough launch rally [Photo: WSWS]

ASLEF and RMT officials described talks with Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan in late September as a breakthrough. ASLEF’s Mick Whelan said she was “welcoming and responsive” and that he was “looking forward to trying to find a solution together”. Lynch described his meeting with the Transportation Secretary as “very pleasant” and “a great start”.

Less than a week later, at the Conservative party conference, Trevelyan denounced the railway strikes, confirming his government’s plans to crush industrial action with fines, scabs and laws on minimum service which will prohibit strikes in essential industries.

At a mass meeting of RMT members on October 20, the RMT reiterated its strategy of partial strikes in pursuit of an agreement with the government. Still, Lynch and RMT Deputy General Secretary John Leach admitted that “no new offers were confirmed over the summer”.

The government, Transport for London (TfL) and employers have not budged an inch.

Lynch described the scale of the government assault as “the most drastic changes to terms and conditions” in decades. His program was unfolding “on the basis of a ticking time bomb”, with thousands of jobs at risk in TOC, Network Rail and the London Underground.

The government plans to close 1,000 ticket offices, reduce the role of train guards and expand driver-only trains. She wants compulsory Sunday work and the versatility of existing grades. At Network Rail, at least 2,000 jobs are on the line, with new employment contracts that will cut wages, rights and safety. A wage freeze is now in its third year.

The RMT, ASLEF, TSSA and Unite are deliberately blocking joint industrial and political action. ASLEF insists that the drivers are involved in separate wage disputes with the 14 TOCs.

The RMT makes no calls to defeat ASLEF’s divisive politics because its own leaders are working to prevent a united struggle. Lynch said at the mass meeting last week, “the next phase [of industrial action] will be one version of the three day strike for Network Rail and a slightly different version for TOCS and then another version again for the rail operators… different groups may be doing slightly different things.

It is impossible to win on this basis.

The class goals and objectives of the railway workers and the union bureaucracy are diametrically opposed. Workers want action to counter the government’s attacks on wages, jobs and conditions, while the bureaucrats who control the RMT, ASLEF, TSSA and Unite seek a compromise with the government.

Throughout 2021, railway unions participated in the Johnson government’s Rail Industry Recovery Group (RIRG) formed to oversee the reprivatization of TOCs under Great British Railways. The RMT signed the RIRG Enabling Framework Agreement in June 2021, committing to “specifically address workforce reforms and personnel cost challenges facing the rail industry “.

The RMT only started voting for a strike this year after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps made it clear the Tories were pressing ahead with their plans over the heads of the railway unions.

No conditions were imposed by the RMT on its talks with the government. Its only concrete demand is the absence of compulsory layoffs, while accepting thousands of job cuts via the government’s voluntary departure program.

The main demand of the RMT is that the labor reform be “negotiated and not imposed”. Its only concern is to preserve its corporate partnership with the government. Hence Lynch’s creeping plea: “I call on new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to liberate the rail industry so they can come to an agreement with RMT.”

A new strategy is needed.

In the railways, BT, Royal Mail, ports and elsewhere, the working class has the power to defeat a Tory government that is rotting on its feet. But it means a direct challenge to the efforts of the Labor and union bureaucracy to sabotage any response. Lynch responded to this summer’s wave of strikes by confronting the campaign group Enough is Enough, whose main aim is to rally working people behind the Labor Party. Lynch is promoting Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer, whose promise at the recent Trades Union Congress annual conference was to “create a modern industrial strategy” that will “strengthen the role of trade unions in our society”. It is a recipe for corporatism, i.e. an alliance between trade unions, government and business to “restore economic stability”, suppress class struggle and defend the global position of British imperialism. as he launches war against Russia and China.

Screen grab from video of Labor Party leader Sir Keir Starmer speaking at the 2022 Trades Union Congress. October 20, 2022 [Photo: Trades Union Congress/YouTube channel]

To take control of the dispute, rank-and-file strike committees must be elected in each depot and workplace to draw up a list of demands and develop unified action plans in each section of the railroads. Applications must include:

· No behind closed doors negotiations with government, Network Rail or private operators. No separate deals and no compromises: demand the complete removal from the Great British Railways agenda.

· All negotiations must be broadcast live to members with full access to all documents and grassroots control.

· An immediate anti-inflation wage deal to undo the three-year wage freeze with inflation currently at 12.6%.

· Immediate strike pay equal to loss of earnings. Dues paid to railroad unions for decades are to be used to fund an all-out strike to overthrow the government.

· Unified action with BT, Royal Mail, port workers, National Health Service staff and teachers, including a general strike to overthrow the government.

The same Tory and Labor politicians who claim there is ‘no money’ to provide a living wage, terms and conditions have handed over £16billion to private rail operators during the pandemic, and hundreds of billions more to the corporate and financial elite over the past two and a half years. The demand must be raised for the nationalization of the big transport companies, the seizure of their profits and their conversion into public ownership under the democratic control of the working class.

We urge railway workers who agree with this to contact the Socialist Equality Party.

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