“The RMT’s dispute is in large part a manifestation of the squeeze on wages, household incomes and public services that is sweeping through society: all people trying to fend off the consequences of that deserve support.”
By Simon Fletcher, Modern Left
Rail workers should be offered every possible support by everyone who wants to protect their pay, living standards and jobs in the cost of living crisis; everyone who wants to safeguard public transport and other public services; and every single person who opposes Boris Johnson and the Conservative government.
Labour, led by its transport team, has rightly called on the government to talk to the RMT. But Keir Starmer’s position that he is “against the strikes” is wrong.
Too often, the right to strike is supported in the abstract, but not in its application.
All progressive people should support the rail workers, for at least the following reasons.
One, because the RMT’s dispute is in large part a manifestation of the squeeze on wages, household incomes and public services that is sweeping through society: all people trying to fend off the consequences of that deserve support. Rishi Sunak’s emergency budget last month was completely inadequate. Not everyone is able to strike. But strikes and other disputes are an inevitable reflection of collapsing household incomes and threats to public services.
Two, if the RMT is able to secure a victory for rail workers it will be a setback for the government’s policy of making working people pay through their living standards. Boris Johnson has warned of a wage-price spiral – which is just a way to blame inflation on people trying to stop their incomes falling in real terms. (The Scottish government has also promoted pay restraint). Should the RMT be successful, it would deliver a serious blow against the policy of wage-austerity. Indeed, it would also be a significant political blow to the Conservative party.
Three, since the wages and living standards crisis is so profound, many other trade union members are faced with the possibility of taking strike action or action short of strikes. Teachers, communication workers, civil servants and many others are faced with the prospect of withdrawing their labour. Success for the RMT would help shift the balance of forces in their favour by building confidence and a sense that change is possible.
Four, rail workers should be given total support because the Conservatives want to crush the union with agency labour – a further erosion of Britain’s already shoddy employment rights. Shapps’ union-busting methods are a threat to employees across the economy. Equally, their defeat would protect people in many other walks of life.
Five, railway workers should be supported because they are defending an essential public service, as well as their own living standards and working conditions. The RMT warns that the employers’ position threatens:
- cuts to safety inspections on the infrastructure by fifty per cent in order to facilitate mass redundancies
- re-opening of disputes on the role and responsibility of train guards
- cuts to catering services
- closing every ticket office in Britain.
The rail union TSSA today wrote to Shapps asking for an urgent meeting and calling on the Transport Secretary to come clean over reports that all rail ticket offices in England face the axe.
Railway workers are not only fighting for their own position but for a decent transport system.
Six, the RMT and all other unions should be given support because of the abuse they get from the worst in society, particularly during an event such as the present dispute. Tory MPs and right wing media bores are lining up to mischaracterise who is going to be on strike, their levels of pay and their reasons for taking action. Leaders of trade unions, from activists to shop stewards and general secretaries are always vilified during disputes, and many of them are red-baited. The current dispute is no exception. Pushing back against the onslaught is part of building a counterweight to right wing ideas. As the rail dispute could be a long one, solidarity is essential.
Primarily, rail workers should be supported in the specific case they are making about their jobs.
But the RMT’s members have effectively placed the union at the centre of an argument about wages, job cuts and public services, around which very sharp conflicts are likely to emerge. Other trade union members look likely to join them. All progressive people should take their side.
UPDATE – since this post was published, it has been reported that Labour has instructed its front bench MPs not to attend RMT picket lines. Not only is this the wrong signal to send, it will not resolve the argument – as the dispute unfolds, and as other groups of trade unionists face workplace further disputes, this debate will deepen.
- Support the striking rail workers by contributing to the RMT’s national dispute fund here
- This article was originally published by Simon Fletcher’s Modern Left on June 21st, 2022.
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