Going Nowhere Fast

Issue section: 
(260)

The rail unions have built up some powerful muscle they can flex.

When Stephen Byers was spotted in a Westminster canteen just before Xmas, deep in talks with Mick Rix of Aslef, eyebrows were raised all round. We were all under the impression that trade unions had been virtually airbrushed out of the frame. Now here was one apparently on the best of terms with the transport secretary. One interpretation might be that, with the railways in particular, the government has dug itself into such a hole that it needs every bit of help it can get to winch itself out again. The last thing it wanted, with the clowns it put in charge of Railtrack still on the warpath in the city and braying for Byers' scalp, was an outbreak of good old-fashioned industrial militancy on top.

But such a straightforward explanation would be handing the government a bit more credit than is entirely due. Much more likely is that the advice it has been getting from some very Old Labour right wingers in the TUC and at cabinet level has been to sound out any opportunity to drive a wedge between the two biggest rail unions, Aslef and the RMT, if it is to have any hope with its public-private strategy at either the railways or London Underground. This was exactly the way that successive governments dealt with leaders of the two main unions when the whole network was operated by British Rail. That neither New Labour nor the new owners of the railway have been able to get away with the same strategy in the last few years is due mainly to the tremendous solidarity so far shown by workers right across the industry, including joining each other's picket lines during last winter's strikes.

As if that wasn't a big enough headache from the bosses' (and Byers') point of view, recent developments threaten to elevate the power of the rail unions to a level that goes a good bit beyond the usual press caricature of the pantomime bogeymen. The main reason for this is that since privatisation a number of things have happened which have, if anything, worked to the advantage of the rail unions.

In the first few years after the break-up of British Rail the new private owners of the network got rid of as many 'non-essential' staff as possible, as well as doing away with costly training and research and development and lots of drivers, signallers and skilled engineers, all in their haste to grab a fast buck. The assumption was that, if they dispensed with as many of the older and more experienced members of the workforce as possible, they could then bring people in off the streets at much lower rates and do away with such fripperies as proper pensions.

Over the short term, this strategy worked a treat and, just as planned, the rail unions were forced onto the defensive (the same approach had already been tried and tested in the bus industry by firms like Stagecoach and Arriva which were then handed control of the train operating companies). Soon after though, this whole approach began to backfire spectacularly. Against all expectations, demand for rail travel actually increased and it soon emerged that there were no longer enough drivers or sufficient engineering workers to carry out urgent repairs. Next thing you know, the big train operating companies were being forced to deal with the shortage of drivers and a subsequent 'poaching war' by offering terms at least as good as their nearest rivals.

Just how vulnerable the train companies had become was illustrated brilliantly in the new year when drivers at ScotRail managed to bring the network to a virtual standstill simply by imposing a ban on overtime and rest-day working. Aslef has managed to exploit this situation to good effect, and by the end of last year the government was beginning to wake up to the fact that the drivers' union was giving the management of the private train operating companies a bit of a runaround. Even worse, early signs were beginning to emerge (notably among the signallers at Railtrack) that workers employed lower down the scale would not stand idly by and watch while a huge disparity opened up between the rates of pay they were getting and those now being paid to drivers. These rumblings have grown even louder in the last couple of months at firms like Arriva Northern, Connex and SWT.

Partly in response to all of this, the government, last June, set about the establishment of monthly get-togethers involving key figures, not only from the government and the rail companies, but also from the rail unions and the TUC. The key 'fixer' involved in all of this is Byers' understudy, John (Ex) Spellar, the dapper little cove who first came to prominence when he played a key role in the formation of the Social Democratic Party and then emerged as 'political officer' of the electricians' union during the Wapping dispute.

Spellar took over as Eric Hammond's bag-carrier during the period when the EETPU antagonised most other unions with its crusade to sign up for 'moderate' single-union no-strike agreements with a range of companies--for which they were eventually expelled by the TUC. Another EETPU official from the same period, Sir Ken Jackson of Amicus, has recently been putting the boot into the RMT at every opportunity. When papers like 'Sunday Business' tell you they have heard it on good authority from a 'senior government minister' that there will be 'no return to beer and sandwiches' (code for, 'Oh, no, the unions are back!') and then go on to unload a barrelful of vitriol about leaders of the RMT, you can be fairly certain that Spellar--and probably Jackson as well--will have been lurking somewhere in the vicinity.

The government has more than a passing interest in the outcome of current elections for important positions in the RMT, where New Labour's arguments appear to hold so little sway among ordinary rail workers that they are not even able to field a credible candidate.

Anyway, it seems that what Mick Rix has told Byers and Spellar is, if they can't face the humiliation of renationalisation why not at least spare themselves a load of hassle and get back to national bargaining on rates of pay and other terms and conditions, and the re-introduction of a national training scheme? You might think that when the leader of a national union makes an offer like that, even though his members are currently doing very nicely out of local bargaining, the government might sit up and take notice. But this lot have never been the brightest buttons in the box. They will carry on blethering about private finance, even though none was ever forthcoming for Railtrack. And rather than upset the new rail bosses at Stagecoach, Arriva, First Bus and National Express, they have in effect decided to leave things more or less as they are. It's called the Strategic Rail Plan.