An obscure one for sure, but whoever put rail strikes on their 2022 disaster bingo sheet must be feeling awfully smug right now as they travel to work on their rail-replacement bus service. Over three strike days this week (the 21 st , 23 rd and 25 th of June), approximately 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) will stage 24-hour walkouts over pay and redundancy disputes. These actions will affect a significant amount of rail services across the country, not only on the strike days, but also throughout the whole week, as employees of Network Rail who maintain nation-wide infrastructure are striking along with employees of a dozen other private rail companies.
So far, so catastrophic. If you look at the news you’d be hit with warnings, ‘live updates’ and woeful stories of cancelled holidays, truant pupils and grannies unable to attend their last ever baby kissing competitions, and so on. Of course, such actions are regrettable for everyone involved, but RMT argue that it’s necessary to protect their members from inflation-inflicted pay cuts and job losses in the middle of a severe economic crisis. Strikes are, for all their faults, a well-established method of achieving this, and there’s little question of its sincerity. In comparison to elsewhere in Europe, rail workers rarely strike in this country, with the last strike of this magnitude happening way back in the 1980s. So, what’s the big deal?
Quite a lot actually, according to the three main opponents of the strike can be categorized accordingly: The rail companies (i.e., the boring), the Government (i.e., the cynical) and the media (i.e., the insane). For rail companies and Network Rail, the main opposition to the strike regards the everyday running of the rail network. Since the end of the pandemic, they have been under enormous pressure to recover passenger numbers, minimise costs and turn a profit again after a long period relying on government subsidy. Therefore, they are trying to push through a raft of unpopular pay and redundancy packages under the pretext of ‘modernisation’, which the union objects to. Discussions of this is almost entirely what’s being discussed in these ‘top secret’ closed door emergency meetings the media keep talking about and are extremely banal but important for the functioning of the rail system. Therefore, and sensibly so, these debates are barely discussed in the media.
That moves us on to the government. They claim that the millions of pounds of tax money poured into the railway during the pandemic to keep it afloat and financially stable gives them the authority to have a say in the policies of the organisations that run it. It is for this reason that they are the primary force behind the aforementioned ‘modernisation’ efforts. Despite this new power over the rail system, Grant Shapps (Transport Secretary and former crypto bro) is pleading no responsibility for both the causes of the strike and the current failing negotiations. In a now troublingly frequent example of having their cake and eating it , the Ministry for Transport is both playing up their support and involvement in the railway system, while simultaneously denying that they are responsible for its failings, including the strikes. Their intention for this hypocrisy is blindingly transparent; the current Conservative administration (especially Prime Minister Boris Johnson) is exceptionally unpopular with both the public and its own MPs, with 41% of the parliamentary party voting no confidence in a recent vote. Furthermore, in the same week of the strikes, they are staring down the barrel of two by-election losses in the newly won bellwether seat of Wakefield and the so-called ‘safe’ Tory stronghold of Tiverton and Honiton. Provoking and prolonging the rail strikes will allow them to wheel out the old well-rehearsed strike media strategy, demonising the unions to reflect attention away from their own multiple failings.
A lynch pin of this strategy is the influence of the right-wing media, which has whole-heartedly gone into bat for the government- accusing the ‘militant strikers’ and ‘union barons’ of returning the country to the 1970s. A common charge parroted by sources like the Daily Mail (and your nan) is that rail workers are greedy and overpaid. In a recent debate, Shapps argued that train drivers are paid an average of £59,000- in comparison to nurses, who get £31,000. This claim says a lot about our austerity-addled public sphere, as it justifies under-paying railway professionals by classing them as ‘undeserving’ and contrasting them with ‘deserving’ healthcare workers who are similarly as underpaid. Morbidly, the equivalent of this would be like asking: “Why should I feed my first-born when my second-born is starving?”. With child food insecurity increasing year-by-year, this is a depressingly relevant analogy for many households across the country. Other media attack lines verge into the absurd, going as far as trying to characterise the very ordinary rail staff strikers as die-hard Marxists or thugs, ready to bottle any poor sod that dares to cross their largely sedentary bored-looking picket lines.
In the midst of such hysteria and misery, relief can be found in the media appearance of Mick Lynch(the general secretary of RMT), whose personable and blunt rebukes to the ‘gotcha’ questions of drone-like daytime TV presenters and Tory junior ministers are something to behold. In one memorable interview, Sky News’s Kay Burley repeatedly tries to lure Lynch into admitting possible violence on the picket line only for him to ask, “we’ll ask them to not go to work, what else would we do?” (gesturing to the handful of disinterested picketers behind him). While the government is getting its punches in on its ‘new public enemy number one’, it is relieving to see resistance against their nonsense attack lines in the media.
So, what’s next? Not good news unfortunately- talks appear to be at an impasse, and the third day of striking inevitable. More rail unions are balloting its members while airline, education, and other unions get in on the action, threatening a summer of major disruption. The government are looking to pass a bill allowing the hiring of agency workers to break the strike- a terrifying idea, rejected by both unions and rail experts. After all, who in their right mind would trust a crew of inexperienced agency workers to guarantee the safety of 180mph trains and the millions of passengers they hold? As for the strikes, the government will publicly be outraged but privately overjoyed as attention shifts away from their failings and towards the demonised unions and the Labour party (who have little to do with the strikes since RMT are not even an affiliated organisation but are nonetheless blamed). Johnson will assume a nostalgic union busting mantle and seek to recover his ratings ahead of the impending next general election.
All of this at the expense of the ordinary person. It is a great shame that at a time when rail travel could excel as a cheap, reliable and green alternative to the spiralling costs of fossil fuel guzzling cars, it is being dragged down by opportunists in the highest office. If you’ll excuse the pessimism, the strikes will only end when the government can stop making political hay when the divisive sun shines, which may be a very long time in the future.
Luke Hills (he/him) [Image Credit- An anonymous source)