Escalating rail strikes is the way to win

The RMT dispute led the way in the current strike wave when it began in June. With eight strike days scheduled for the next month, Ian Allinson interviews a Manchester RMT rep about the strike, now into its seventh month, and how it can be won.

RMT members with banners
Photo: Steve Eason

There’s been a lot of confusion about the recent offer from the employers. Can you explain why it was so unacceptable and why you think the employers made it?

It’s come from the Treasury, or maybe even the Prime Minister. Driver-only operation was included in the offer. It’s my understanding that the employers didn’t want to include that, not even the Department of Transport did. It came in at the last minute and completely collapsed any chance of a deal.

A 4 percent pay rise is obviously a pay cut when inflation is in double digits, and we’ve had no pay rise for three years now. Really, just to keep where we were before the pandemic, we need a pay rise of about 15 percent with no strings attached.

As well as offering 4% they are removing the role of the guard. Driver only operation is a complete red line and will never be acceptable. We’ve been fighting against it for the past ten years on all the different train operators.

Compulsory Sunday working – if you couldn’t get cover you would have to work it – that’s probably worth about 20 percent on its own. If they wanted Sundays inside the working week, it needs to be reflected in the salary. A lot of people get paid enhanced rate for Sunday, and it’s often the only days that railway workers have guaranteed off that fit with ‘normal’ people who work nine to five jobs Monday to Friday. It’s the only day you can guarantee that you’ll see your family and stuff like that.

Then there’s the removal of walking time. Walking time’s there because we don’t instantly have our breaks on the platform when you get off a train, you have to go to your mess room. And when you start your day at work, you have to go and check all the safety notices if you’re a driver or a guard. The walking time was rolled into that as well. So these are important, safety-critical parts of the job.

So why do you think the government wanted to make that offer?

I think they want a confrontation with the unions. They also want to split the different grades and different companies. They want Network Rail to be taken out of the dispute so that they can focus particularly on attacking station staff, guards, onboard catering and other people like that. The signallers are at the very top of the pyramid – when the signallers are on strike, nothing runs. They want to split the signallers from maintenance because they want to absolutely shaft maintenance – loads of redundancies. If they take Network Rail out, then they’ve just got the train operating companies – and then within the train operating companies, they want to split workers there too.

The latest anti union legislation going through parliament targets transport workers, but that was pledged long before the current dispute. Now the government’s talking about even more anti-strike legislation. How should we respond to this?

I don’t think we can comply with minimum service laws, because they will completely undermine our industrial strength. I’ve been speaking to some railway workers in Italy who came over and visited us in Manchester a few months ago and they told us they brought in minimum service initially in the 90s – it completely sacked the power of transport workers there. It’s RMT policy not to follow unjust anti trade union laws. Now that’s not always enforced, but in this case I think the General Secretary has taken quite a strong line.

It was originally just going to be targeted at transport workers, now they’re saying they could extend it to other workers too. That’s quite an intense hardening of the government’s stance. In the past couple of days, strikes have been announced by civil servants in the PCS, ambulance workers and so on. The Tories are saying they’d like to outlaw ambulance workers going on strike and firefighters too, which is something they’ve never even suggested before. I’d like to think that part of it is that they’re panicking because they don’t know how to deal with this. It’s not like in the 80s when they’d planned to pick off groups of organised workers one by one – the miners, the dockers and in other places too. Here they’ve created a confrontation with all of the organised unions, not just the rail workers – and now unions which haven’t recently managed to beat the ballot threshold are starting to do so.

So the four strike days next week and the four over Christmas represent some escalation of the RMT action. What’s the RMT leadership’s current plan to win? And do you think it will work?

I’m very pleased to see that they’ve escalated the action. We’ve taken eight days of strike action over six months. Moving to eight days this next month is a step in the right direction. In my opinion, when we started back in June, we should have had at least three days every month.

I think we’re going to have to continue to escalate the action because the government’s doubling down on their commitment to not just smash the RMT but trying to smash all the rail unions. That’s clear from the offers we’ve had. The Network Rail offer has gone out to members with a recommendation to reject. The offer for train operating companies was rejected out of hand by the NEC.

I’m confident that the Network Rail offer will be rejected because it still includes job cuts. I think our red lines should be no compulsory redundancies, no driver-only operation and a pay rise to meet the cost of living. It’s not just for this year, but for the previous two years. I think until a deal like that comes in front of us then we’re going to have to keep striking.

So you’re talking about quite a significant escalation of your own action. How do you think coordination with other unions, and other industries even, fits into that picture?

We try and coordinate with other unions. On the railway, the majority of the strike action so far has been taken by the RMT. Having action all at once is good and moves us towards a general strike position. It was good when ASLEF, the RMT and TSSA all went out on the same day.

Outside of the railways, it might be more effective having different unions taking action at different times over the course of several weeks and months, which will cause huge disruption. I honestly can’t give you the answer as to what one works best. Perhaps the best way to find out is to try both strategies. You can have big coordinated days of action between all the different unions – civil servants, railways, NHS workers and other people – but you could also in between that try certain days where rail workers are out and then other days when border force workers are out and that kind of thing.

You said how pleased you were about the escalation – you’re arguing for a further escalation. Why do you think the leadership aren’t taking that approach or haven’t to date?

I think they’ve been hopeful for a deal coming through. I also think they’re concerned about escalating it too fast. I’m of the opinion that the pockets of the government are essentially limitless, so you want to cause maximum disruption as quickly as you can to win the dispute. I think long, drawn-out disputes aren’t ideal – but this one has become a long and drawn-out dispute. We need to escalate the action, and continue to escalate it until we do win. You can see examples of bus workers across the country, and there’s a fair few other examples as well that I’m sure plenty of people know about where they’ve gone for an all out strike, and that has eventually led to an acceptable deal.

However, I think it’s something you’d need to build towards, because we’ve had a bit of a lull in action over the past few months. To suddenly go from zero to sixty would be quite a shock for people who’ve got to continue to build for that in the workplaces. Then you can keep escalating and escalating, if you do get to that point. But you have to be ready to do so.

Are there any kind of networks or factions within the RMT trying to push for different strategies?

As far as I’m aware there’s only one faction, which is the RMT Broad Left. The leadership of the union is currently people who are supported by the Broad Left. There isn’t a functioning left wing faction that I know of.

And when you say ‘Broad Left’, is that not the left then?

Well, it depends on your definition of what the left is. The broad left is composed of some people in the union officialdom, some people affiliated with the Communist Party and some people affiliated with the Labour Party. I wouldn’t say that it’s the most left wing grouping that I’ve seen inside of the trade unions.

People like yourself are arguing for more. Are you organising at all to try to put any pressure on?

Yes, resolutions have gone through the union’s democratic structures, calling for more industrial action and different types of industrial strategy. I think we’ve got quite a healthy branch democracy in the RMT. But obviously lots of people have lots of different opinions, and you’re never going to get a perfect result, but it’s important to keep trying new strategies and listening to what’s coming from the members as well, because it’s the members who are the ones who are leading the dispute and they’re the ones who are losing the money, and they’re the ones who understand how it works.

The government wants to stop the RMT winning. What can people do to help you beat them?

People coming down and supporting picket lines is useful. Having rallies and demonstrations is very helpful as it shows the strength of the trade union movement. But the most important way that people can assist the RMT is to get active in their own workplaces, build for strike action and to come out on strike themselves, because all workers are facing a cost of living crisis in this country.

If you’d asked me this question a few months ago, I would have been frustrated, was the honest answer. Some unions hadn’t begun stepping forward and taking the action, but lots of people are now stepping forwards. So I think the most effective way is for people to take strike action in coordination with us.

Because the dispute involves most of the RMT’s membership, RMT can’t provide strike pay in the way some other unions can. How important is fundraising for the strike going to be, in terms of allowing you to escalate in the way you’ve described?

We don’t provide strike pay, but we provide solidarity payments to people who need assistance. I think at the moment we’re in the the battle of our lifetime in the RMT so all available funds should be used to support people who need it.

Lots of money has been donated to the RMT from people on social media, and through  trades councils. We’ve had lots of donations on the picket line as well. Not just money, but material support, food and stuff like that. I think it would be helpful if people in larger unions, perhaps who aren’t taking as much action at the moment, would send money from their branches to RMT regions or to the national dispute fund.

Donate to the RMT dispute fund at


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