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UK: Why Are the RMT Rail Strikes Happening?

Bah Humbug! The British ruling class is curmudgeonly displeased, their trade unions are surly, and their railway workers just won’t stop striking! It’s just bewildering, as the ruling class increase profit margins throughout the COVID-19 pandemic at the direct expense of the working class, calls for industrial action amplify into a roar. How unprecedented!

Despite a history of pension cuts, increased interest rates, cuts to many national services, continual failure to wage-match inflation, refusal to fairly negotiate with trade unions, and a holy devotion to Thatcher-era privatization projects, the conservative Tory party, and the ruling capitalist class they bastion now find themselves blindsided. They are at an impasse between a cost-of-living crisis bolstering industrial action and the steadfast progenitor of these conditions: increasing profit.

As 2022 rolled around out of the smog of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to a diminished demand for public transport, a familiar face emerged in England in the form of a financially crippled public transport system. As they have in the past, adamant on the private sector controlling railway service, Boris Johnson and his Tory party prepared to carry out transport reforms. These reforms supposedly aimed at “decarbonizing” British railways, wherein they would save farepayers money, all while achieving a net zero public transport system by 2050. However, when we examine what these transport reforms consist of, we quicky find how similar they are to austerity measures carried out in Britain’s past. In order to prevent the falling rate of profit in which the transport system saw during COVID, transport austerity requires cuts to pensions, cuts to personnel or redundancies, pay raises that do not match inflation rates, and technological upgrades that would automate work processes, therefore replacing jobs with privately profited technology.

At every step these reforms function as a mechanism to save the owners of transport capital money at the expense of working class jobs and pay. Although the general public may save a penny or two in 10 years’ time and Britain could very well achieve a net-zero transport system, this liberal phraseology of “decarbonization” is not the outright goal. The main goal is to maintain profit rates. This phraseology is a clever ploy to disguise their actions as progressive and in order to recover this “lost” profit the British capitalists plan to make the working class pay for it.

The conditions they’ve created out of this pursuit has led to strike. After walking out on June 21st over wages and measures that would include redundancies, workers from The National Union of Railway, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) offered Network Rail, a state owned company which controls the infrastructure of British rails, an initial demand of a 7% pay increase to compensate the real-terms pay cut during the COVID-19 lockdown and a guarantee of no redundancies. When this initial offer was rejected by Network Rail for a 3% pay increase and the negotiations collapsed, the RMT workers overwhelmingly voted to strike. So, through 10 days of strike during the months of June July and August, RMT workers as well as workers from several other unions—Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), and Unite the Union (UNITE)—continually voted on and then engaged in industrial action including a strike against Network Rail and thirteen private railway operating companies. The effects were sweeping; the strikes drastically disrupted transport throughout England. During the industrial action in June, only 20% of railways were in operation and none of them were at full capacity. Some regions such as Cornwall were entirely without service. Despite this and many desperate attempts from the media to slander those on the picket line, workers were met with ardent support as displayed by a public opinion survey from Savanta ComRes: 58% of the public feel the transport strikes are justified in their action.

A second round of negotiations began in July with an offer of a 5% pay increase and no guarantees on no redundancies from Network Rail. It was declined by RMT workers, citing a failure to match inflation. Consequently, negotiations broke down and RMT workers voted to strike again. It bears emphasis that most RMT ballots saw votes in favor for action including strike outweighing votes against by a ratio of 7:1 or greater. That is, for every 1 person who voted no, 7 people voted yes. For instance, in the ballot to defend jobs, pay, and conditions against Northern trains, 2409 people cast a vote. Of those, 2145 voted yes and 259 voted no. That’s 89% in favor, 11% against with almost a 9:1 ratio.

Discontent picked up further traction in July as an additional 1600 RMT workers at the London Underground, and roughly 3,000 UNITE workers at Stagecoach in Merseyside, London United Busways, and Felixstowe Docks also voted on and then engaged in industrial action. In August, TSSA workers won a 7.1% pay increase against Merseyrail, casting an omen to the only resolution to these negotiations: concession to the workers’ demands.

In reaction to the summer of strikes, the British government passed a law legalizing the use of scabs to supplement a striking workforce.  To quote RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch, “[u]sing taxpayers’ money to satisfy the anti-union agenda of the Tory party and seek to break the trade unions is shameful and means the dispute will be prolonged indefinitely as the train companies don’t lose a penny as a result of the industrial action and therefore have no incentive to settle the disputes.” These strikes can be easily resolved by addressing the material concerns of workers. Instead, desperate to increase their falling rates of profit, the ruling class chooses to lash out and prolong the effects of the strikes on society.

As we pass into September, although no further industrial action has been planned as of yet, the dispute between RMT workers and Network Rail has not been resolved, rather, the working class militancy has been stoked. The RMT strikes are not the only strikes or negotiations occurring in Britain, but they play out tangentially to other industrial disputes in many sectors across the economy; from barristers, to nurses, to teachers, to transport service workers. The working class, in totality, is clearly displaying their discontent with the conditions created by the British ruling class. Time and time again the capitalist prioritizes rate of profit over those that generate their profit, and in doing so they sow the seeds for industrial action.

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