R973 - A war of attrition

We are all fed up with the seemingly endless rounds of industrial action on our railways.

Fully five months ago, I wrote on this page that this is the first significant dispute where the disruption to passengers has been generally considered to be tolerable. And so it has proved - relentlessly so.

Those who are still dependent on the railway for travel to work or for visiting friends and family are becoming more vocal, but they still represent a relatively small proportion of the total. Everybody else has seemingly adjusted their lives to manage around the disruption.

I really feel for ordinary railway workers, persuaded to get into the trenches for what was no doubt sold as a short, sharp fight to win an honest pay rise to help with inflation. Now, with no end in sight, prevented from working overtime to make up their losses, and on the run-in to Christmas with all its extra bills, many must be wondering if they really want to remain in the rail industry.

Railway managers are not immune from this sense of frustration. But added to this is a deep sense of tiredness as the additional and unwanted pressure continues without relief. Not only are they busy repetitively planning and re-planning services, acting as contingency staff on strike days, and trying to ensure everything is being done safely, they are also simultaneously coping with the most relentless pressure to reduce costs.

And just in case you think the industry’s leaders have it easy, they have all these same pressures, while at the same time trying to defend the industry’s actions.

I doubt that many readers will have much sympathy for the admittedly well-paid people at the top of the industry, but some of those I have talked to in recent weeks are now close to exhaustion. Maintaining enthusiasm to keep leading your business while keeping key staff and managers motivated is challenging when you feel disempowered, frustrated and weary yourself.

Throughout this period, the Government has held its nerve, despite two changes of the key politicians at the top. The discontinuous nature of the strikes and the ability of many workers to work from home as required has removed any political urgency to reach a settlement.

But the Government is now fighting on numerous fronts, all of which have a common root: serious inflation not matched by pay rises.

Rail is unfortunate, in that the disputes started earlier - before the posties, nurses and ambulance crews. But now it is caught up in a bigger piece of industrial strife from which government cannot now give ground without losing its remaining credibility.

So, we have reached a stalemate where both sides are dug in: the RMT with too much to lose to be able to compromise, and Government with no option but to press on to protect its core economic strategy. Railway people are caught between them on the front lines.

Unless there is a fresh approach, this could drag on for many more months, until one side or the other collapses. In the meantime, lasting damage is being done to the railway’s reputation, and to the mood music which drives confidence in its future growth. And in the short term, the railway’s finances grow sicker by the week. There will be a reckoning from the Treasury, which will force the financial support down in 2023.

You can argue that the employers positioned themselves poorly in the early stages of these disputes, and that the RMT has been more effective at articulating its position in public (although General Secretary Mick Lynch is having a harder time of it recently).

Furthermore, political leadership has been all over the place - sometimes seemingly wanting to ratchet up the dispute into something akin to the miners’ strikes, and later apparently back-tracking on the shape of a deal with train operating company (TOC) staff after it had been offered. The latest change of tack from ministers regarding Driver Only Operation is ill-conceived, as Graham Eccles makes clear elsewhere in this edition.

This situation calls for a fresh approach. A way forward ought to be possible for infrastructure maintenance staff, based on the offer already tabled. Most people accept that an overhaul of their terms and conditions is overdue. If it’s not to be the current offer, then RMT needs to propose an alternative which achieves the same objective, rather than just opposing any form of modernisation. TSSA members have just voted to accept the same deal already rejected by RMT.

It is time to bring this particular dispute to a head, either by agreeing an alternative by a fixed deadline or by imposing the changes. I hope it doesn’t come to a lock-out, as that would leave lasting scars, but this would at least get the dispute sorted without it dragging on throughout 2023.

Once infrastructure maintenance is settled, it should be relatively straightforward to settle with the signallers, who have effectively been asked to strike repeatedly in support of their colleagues.

With signallers settled, Network Rail will be able to get back to focusing on its day job. Ensuring the network is fully open again will achieve several things: enabling freight to restore a full service and grow its markets, and enabling TOCs which don’t have disputes on (such as London Overground, Merseyrail and the London Underground) to run full services.

There is one other big thing that settling the Network Rail disputes would do: it would condition the ground for negotiation on settlements to start in earnest with each TOC individually. It is unfortunate that the TOC disputes have been lumped together, with the Rail Delivery Group slipping into a role as the employer representative. The reality is that a series of separate disputes have been brought together by the RMT and ASLEF as a way of achieving a bigger impact, and they need to be split out again.

With government sticking firmly to its mantra of no pay rises without productivity deals to pay for them, the negotiation can only be done on a TOC-by-TOC basis. Every TOC has different terms and conditions for its staff groups. Don’t be fooled by those who claim that there are no easy productivity gains to be made. There is huge scope for efficiency gains, especially for train crew by overhauling rostering and diagramming rules.

If there is a genuine will to trade inefficient work practices for pay rises, it ought to be possible to reach settlements that lie within the Treasury’s requirements, although it will take some time to achieve this and can only be done for each TOC separately. If Network Rail is settled, RMT and ASLEF could be persuaded to call a truce to enable progress to start.

The trades unions should resist the temptation to prosecute this as a political campaign of workers versus a Tory government, and instead focus on getting the best deal possible for
their members. This will involve accepting modernisation of working practices. Unless there is real progress on this now, we will be left with a smaller railway in the end.

Nigel Harris is away.

Written by Michael Holden.

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  • Sid - 19/01/2023 19:11

    MTR Elizabeth Line drivers got a 10% rise last year, paid for out of the public purse, so should every other driver

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