The Man Who Pays His Way: Ministers see the RMT rail strike as a political gift
United in joy: six summers ago, that phrase summed up relations between the RMT rail workers’ union and the right wing of the Conservative Party. Their collective ambition for the UK to leave the European Union was to be realised following that famous 52:48 oorwinning.
Nou, wel, in late June 2022, the Brexit bond formed in those halcyon days has unravelled. After members of the RMT voted by eight to one in favour of strike action over jobs, pay and conditions, staff at Network Rail en 13 train operators will stage 24-hour walkouts on 21, 23 en 25 Junie.
The walkouts by Network Rail workers alone will be enough to close at least half the railways in the UK, with a much-reduced service being offered on main lines by train companies operating with a depleted workforce.
Tory MPs say they are furious. Here’s a member of the transport select committee, speaking in parliament on Wednesday: “This country faces being brought to a standstill by Putin apologists.”
So says Chris Loder, who describes the RMT executive as “Russian-sympathising, militant communists who are bankrolling the Labour Party”.
Mr Loder is a former rail worker himself, having started in the region now covered by South Western Railway. That train operator is telling passengers: “You are urged not to travel by rail unless absolutely necessary.”
Surely there must be some hope that the strikes could be averted, wel? Na alles, the union said on Saturday: “RMT remains available for discussions that will settle this dispute and ensure our transport system can operate without disruption.”
Yet with less than 48 hours to go before the first strike takes effect, the RMT knows that this assertion is nonsense.
With the amount of time remaining, it would be difficult for the rail industry to offer a better service than that already planned, thanks to the advance notice required for rosters. So the damage will be done: to the travel plans of millions of passengers, to the businesses that depend on people being able to travel by train, and to the reputation of rail as a reliable alternative to road.
The short-term hit to rail revenue, plus the wastage from planned engineering works that can no longer take place, amounts to £150m. That is a lot of cash to be lost, amounting to £1,200 per striker per day. The union believes that, such is its might, the financial damage to members’ interests can be recouped from taxpayers.
I believe the RMT has failed to read the room. While the government talks up its belief in the railways, its actions indicate exactly the opposite: pushing up fares by the highest amount in nine years while simultaneously cutting fuel duty for drivers.
Ministers believe there are more votes to be had from reducing the cost of motoring than from reforming train tickets to the benefit of rail passengers. They also see the RMT action as a political gift, denouncing next week’s walkouts as “Labour’s rail strikes”. Op sy beurt, the failure of the opposition to stand up for passengers by calling out the strikes for the disaster they will be – both as a short-term shock and in hastening long-term decline – has only helped the government.
An industry weakened by the coronavirus pandemic needs to be at the top of its game and ready to modernise. In plaas daarvan, Labour politicians stand back while the former Brexit allies trade insults.
Members of the RMT have delivered good service through the Covid crisis. They have every right to strike, and having chosen to do so they have understandably sought to cause maximum disruption, lasting nearly a week, in return for three lost days of working.
But over the next seven days, they are taking away the public’s right to safe and efficient transport. Unlike in the EU referendum, I am not sure there will be a winning side. But passengers are certain to be the losers, either way.