Britain's railways are a total mess right now. Last week, conductors on Southern, one of Britain's worst performing operators, kicked off a five-day strike. It was, according to Telegraph columnist and former Blair adviser John McTernan, "the latest stage in a dispute in which the Luddite RMT union has made it clear that it is fully committed to fighting against the future".
The RMT's claim that getting conductors to open the doors would endanger the public was "total rubbish", a Sun editorial said, with the strike really about the unions showing "they still have the power to cause widespread misery."
There's no denying that the RMT still has that power. ScotRail is in dispute with the RMT over the exact same issue. On Friday (13th August), guards at Eurostar walked out at the peak of summer holiday season, citing concerns over "work/life balance". It was only hours before RMT announced a company-wide strike at Virgin Trains East Coast.
All this at a time when among the wider British workforce, the number of workers involved in strike action is at a 120-year low. Only 6.5 million British workers are union members, compared with 13 million in 1979. Even when they have a union presence, many other workplaces manage to stay open when hit by strikes – which workers, perhaps fearing for their jobs, are reluctant to endorse.
So what's so special about the railways? Christian Wolmar, a transport journalist and former London mayoral contender, says the impact of industrial action on the railways is unparalleled – especially when drivers' union Aslef joins in. "In other industries workers' industrial strength has been destroyed by a mixture of technological change and the decline of the traditional working class," he says.
It's not that the railways haven't modernised – and with 23 train operating companies and a separate body for infrastructure, they've faced the sort of fragmentation that normally kills collective bargaining. But crucially, there's still no room for competition on individual routes. "Compare the railways with a biscuit factory," says Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford. "A biscuit factory will always have other companies making biscuits. It's not a vital service, but the railways are, and there's a lack of alternative services."
Most people don't recognise is the degree of membership identity in the rail unions. There's a sense of a loyalty and an adherence to the union.
Still, says Professor Gall, that alone can't explain the rail unions' power. "One of the things most people don't recognise is the degree of membership identity in the rail unions. There's a sense of a loyalty. It's not blind, it's not uncritical. But there's still a rail union identity that you don't have elsewhere." Though the RMT also represents seafarers, oil workers and bus drivers and cabbies, it's still dominated by the rail industry – and members and officials alike feel a deep-seated connection with the trade. "As other unions have become general unions [through mergers], the identity between the occupation and the union has been lost over the years," Gall adds.
The Eurostar conductors' picket line on Friday was the first strike of its kind in the history of Eurostar – prompted by an ongoing dispute over London-based staff being divvied the worst shifts. One worker tells me that despite the strike coinciding with industrial action elsewhere, there's no grand directive from above. "RMT is well known as a fighting union, but we're very empowered to organise ourselves."
"Our members have taken resolve from other struggles," says RMT assistant general secretary Mick Lynch. "But it's still the case that they direct us…I can't tell them when to go on strike." Mick was a Eurostar electrician himself until he was elected to his current position a year ago. "We have nobody outside the industry in the union," he says.
It flies in the face of the image of the RMT propagated by politicians and the media, who credit strikes to extremist political activists pied-piping a reluctant workforce. Christian Wolmar says the RMT leadership is actually sometimes "less militant than the activists" who push a strategy of strikes as a bargaining tool. "It's a well-honed routine," he says. "But management fall for it." Managers at Virgin and Southern declined VICE's requests for an interview, Eurostar didn't reply. But if calling strikes is a tactic, it's worked – the Southern, ScotRail and Eurostar strikes were all called off for further talks.
Christian is critical of the RMT's strategy. "They play the safety card when I don't think there are enormous safety issues," he argues. But he says they do have a point in the Southern dispute. "The unions are justified to think the dispute is with the government," he says, referring to the claim that operators are bringing in driver-only operation as part of a cost-cutting drive imposed by ministers.
RMT is well known as a fighting union, but we're very empowered to organise ourselves.
And the government hasn't exactly been subtle in expressing its view that the rail unions are an obstacle to modernisation. At a public meeting in Croydon in February, Department for Transport passenger services director Peter Wilkinson called for support in future "punch-ups" with unions. "We have got to break them," he said. "They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can't afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry."
While I'm interviewing Mike the RMT boss at the St Pancras picket line, we're approached by a frustrated passenger. "You're holding the country to ransom," he says. "You're standing in the way of progress." Mike calmly replies: "I've worked on the railways all my life, and I know what progress is."
But as strikes make commuting hell and ruin holidays, many people are galled to hear train guards demanding better "work/life balance". Especially when they read about union leaders sunning themselves in Turkey. "You can't have one rule for rich union barons and another for the suffering commuters," said former Tory cabinet minister Sir Eric Pickles. But surely the point is that in modern Britain, that's one rule for workers who have held onto a strong union, and the rest of us who have resigned ourselves to – if we're lucky – managed decline of our terms and conditions.
Last summer joint action by RMT and its sister unions shut down the entire Underground in a bid to get better conditions for the new Night Tube. It was obviously frustrating when the city was gridlocked. But when we get angry because we can't get into work, and not because of the pisspoor conditions we endure in our non-unionised workplaces for the sake of corporate profits, we're getting something wrong. Maybe we all need to learn something from the RMT.
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