Jumping through the hoops

As RMT members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action, the Tories are threatening to enact yet more anti-trade union laws. Eddie Ford urges defiance

After a ballot of over 40,000 members, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union announced on May 24 an “overwhelming” vote in favour of industrial action across Network Rail and 16 other train operating companies1. That is, 71% of those balloted took part in the vote with 89% voting in favour of strike action - meaning the RMT managed to successfully jump through the hoops of the anti-trade union laws. Each company is balloted separately. At least 50% of members must vote, and 40% of eligible voters must vote ‘yes’2.

The union’s press statement says they will now be “demanding urgent talks” with the companies over pay, jobs and safety to find a “negotiated settlement”, while the RMT’s NEC discusses “a timetable for strike action from mid-June” - as the union has to give notice - but “we sincerely hope” ministers will encourage the employers to return to the table and “hammer out a reasonable settlement”. Aslef, the traindrivers’ union, too might ballot its members over the dispute with ScotRail, a newly nationalised industry which has axed about a third of its services after a large majority of its 1,200 drivers refused to work overtime. Aslef has also warned it will not tolerate a further pay freeze. Not to be outdone, TSSA, the other main rail union, has also said it is considering a ballot of its 20,000 members. Manuel Cortes, general secretary, has talked about a “summer of discontent” that could be the biggest walkout since the 1926 General Strike.

If all three rail unions were to take industrial action, it would certainly amount to one of the biggest strikes in modern British history - if, by modern, you mean post-Thatcher. Yes, a national signallers’ strike stopped trains intermittently across the country in 1994. But since privatisation and the introduction of draconian anti-trade union laws, disputes have largely been regional. However, this time could be different, given the sheer numbers and geographic spread, with so many firms and the involvement of Network Rail - an “arm’s length” public body of the Department for Transport, with no shareholders, which is legally bound to reinvest its income in the railways.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, is threatening to bring in yet more anti-trade union legislation. Namely, “minimum service levels” laws for vital infrastructure services, as floated in the last Conservative manifesto, whereby the unions must agree to keep some sort of skeleton service going. You are meant to vote for strike action and then make sure that the strike is ineffective. In other words, the Tories are demanding that the union itself organises scabbing. Such a move by Shapps would effectively deny the right to strike.

According to Shapps, the rail unions these days do not have much power, as people have more choice - apparently they can decide to go by car or get on a bus. But in reality, depending on where you live, this is not the case. In London, for example, at rush hour things move at a crawl at the best of times. In the event of a strike on the underground system buses become so overcrowded that it is impossible to get in them. A journey which should take half an hour takes two or more hours. The City of London, the world’s second financial centre, the source of so much government revenue and so many million pound bonuses, finds it more and more difficult to function ... and, therefore the calls for concessions or a clampdown on what is one of the few remaining concentrations of effective trade union power.

We have also heard from the secretary of state for education, Nadhim Zahawi. He has suggested that teachers’ unions will be downgraded when it comes to individual disputes between employee and employer. This is meant to be based on a recent survey where 28% of teachers said they were not satisfied with the service provided by the unions. This is hardly surprising as we all know that a lot of people, not least in teaching, only join a union because it provides some sort of legal protection in case they fall foul of the law or get accused of something untoward, like expressing the wrong kind of political opinion. The union is there to provide legal representation and support, not collective action. In other words, like so many unions in Britain these days, the teachers’ unions act more as an insurance policy that anything a time traveller from a few decades ago would recognise as trade unionism - ie, the shop stewards of the 1940s-70s. If you sacked someone then, the chances were that the entire workforce would be called out on strike until the matter was settled.

That kind of industrial relations ruled in many industries up to the 1970s, when the Labour government incorporated the trade union bureaucracy into a much closer relationship with the state. In return for allowing greatly increased union membership levels, they gutted the trade unions in the workplace of any real power. We went from a situation where the shop steward would directly collect trade union dues from members - and therefore talk to them, find out who was happy or unhappy, generally take the temperature of the workplace - to one where the employer automatically docked your pay and paid the dues straight into the bank account of the national trade union. With workplace collective strength increasingly neutered, industrial relations increasingly became a matter for industrial tribunals, the lowest level of the court system. That suited the trade union bureaucracy, but disempowered the workforce at the point of production.

Since then, not only have trade unions become thoroughly bureaucratised and ever more remote, despite the workforce in Britain massively increasing from around 12 million to about 30 million, trade union membership has halved. What the Labour government of Wilson and Callaghan gave to the trade union bureaucracy in return for ‘pay restraint’, the Tory government of Thatcher took away with the rigours of the market, mass unemployment and the ‘freedom’ not to join a trade union.

There remain a few pockets of effective trade unionism such as the rail unions. Clearly, the Tories are out to break that power - but whether they can actually succeed is an open question. The union bureaucracy will huff and puff. But faced with the seizure of their lovely headquarters or a freeze on their bank accounts they might well be inclined to obey the law. However, we are not dealing with an equivalent of 1984-1985, when the Tory government was quite prepared to destroy an entire industry. They are not going to destroy the rail industry, which they know would be utter madness. This is certainly not like the 1960s, with Lord Beeching, chair of British Rail, whose infamous report led to the ripping up of just over 4,000 miles of the railway network and the closure of numerous stations on ‘cost and efficiency’ grounds. In 1966 Britain was left with just 13,721 miles of railway lines, with a further 2,000 miles lost by the end of the 1960s.

However, even with many workers, especially amongst the so-called professions, accounting, the law, civil servants, administration, local government, etc, insisting on their right to work from home, there will not be another Lord Beeching: not even Grant Shapps could take on that role nowadays. Capital itself would object.

No less to the point, if the Tories push through yet more anti-trade union laws, as they easily could with an 80-seat majority, what that will produce, at least in a period of relatively full employment, might well not be the compliant, servile, trade union bureaucracy they wish for. Rather, it may produce a modernday version of Captain Swing, Nedd Ludd and Rebecca. In other words an unofficial, even terroristic, trade unionism that glories in defying the law, breaking the law, making the law ineffective. Frankly, that is exactly what we wish for.


  1. rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-declares-overwhelming-mandate-for-national-strike-action-on.↩︎

  2. www.personneltoday.com/hr/trade-union-balloting-rules-take-effect-1-march.↩︎