Rail strikes: capitalism vs the workers once again

The bourgeois state is out to smash the transport union.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The December and January rail and tube strikes which paralysed key sections of the capital’s commuter network offered a tantalising glimpse of the power that can be exercised by workers, given some organisation and halfway decent leadership.

The RMT actions, including a complete 24-hour shutdown of the central Zone 1 of the tube network on 8/9 January were in response to the loss of 838 jobs, leaving insufficient staff to look after the stations safely. Only by staff working on their rest days can all the stations safely stay open – as was clearly demonstrated by the 80 plus station closures in just over a month that happened when the RMT slapped on an overtime ban.

Having axed 838 jobs and slashed the starting pay for station staff by 25 percent, Transport for London (TfL) is now paying ill-trained scabbing managers three times the normal station staff rate to pick up the slack. This may make no economic sense in the short term, but no doubt bosses feel their investment will more than pay off down the line if they can succeed in breaking the power the transport unions now have to protect passengers on the one hand, and to defend the pay and conditions of the workforce on the other.

The cost-cutting ‘modernisation’ plan for London Underground, ineptly titled ‘Fit for the Future’, was originally launched by the former Tory mayor, Boris Johnson. Needless to say, the current Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan has effortlessly picked up the baton, now telling London Underground workers: “there is no reason for the unions to strike”. In this, he flies in the face of the findings of an independent review that he himself had commissioned from London Travel Watch, which confirmed that passengers were indeed struggling to find staff and get support when needed. (See Southern rail, London Underground and BA staff to go ahead with strikes by Gwyn Topham, Guardian, 6 January 2017)

The government picks a fight

In fact, it is likely that both Johnson and Khan were dancing to a tune piped by government. By picking a fight with the transport unions, it seems clear that the department of transport is hoping to break the hold of organised labour on the transport industry, which is seen as one of the last surviving bastions of union power.

The man in charge of passenger services at the ministry, Peter Wilkinson, told a public meeting in Croydon in February 2016: “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support. We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.” (DfT official says train drivers who oppose government reforms ‘can get hell out of my industry’ by Polly Albany-Ward, Croydon Advertiser, 22 February 2016)

Govia Thameslink (GTR), which runs Southern rail, differs from other train operating companies in that it does not depend upon ticket revenues for its income, but instead receives a set fee from government, rendering it virtually unbankruptable. Arguably, this makes Southern an ideal testbed for the government to challenge the strength of the unions, permitting the company to risk permanently alienating its customer base (through gross mismanagement and through provoking conflict with its workforce) without having to worry about flagging ticket sales.

GTR has even sought to turn the public backlash to its advantage, trying to use social media to deflect blame for its appalling performance onto the workforce, though this turned into a PR disaster when tweets poured in blaming the company for the chaos.

The dispute on Southern centres on the company’s attempts to strip guards of their safety responsibilities and to place full responsibility on the shoulders of the driver alone. Because GTR already operates 60 percent of its services on the basis of a driver-only operation (DOO), this gave the company the opportunity to present the further extension of DOO to the rest of Southern as a fait accompli.

Both the drivers’ union (Aslef) and the guards’ union (RMT) understand very well that the government’s intention is to treat Southern as a test case, to be followed nationally, if successful, by the wholesale deskilling (and eventual shedding) of guards and the imposition upon all drivers of DOO. All operational functions would be stripped from the guard, leaving the driver to decide on his own when it’s okay to start the train, basing his judgement on a hasty skim-view of dozens of CCTV images.

It is clear that driver-only operation presents a clear and wholly unnecessary threat to passenger safety, about which the unions are rightly concerned and have been doing their best to publicise, and which the profit-hungry bosses have been quick to dismiss. ‘Independent’ safety investigations into DOO have come to the conclusion that the new trains are safe – there being, of course, no connection between these findings and the involvement of train company representatives on the board of the investigators! (See Southern boss is key player on ‘independent’ safety board, RMT, 10 October 2016)

The outcome of these strikes depends ultimately on how far unions are able to mobilise workers on a class-wide basis, generalising the immediate detail of the dispute into a broader challenge to capitalism. Whilst there has been no formal coordination of industrial action between the major rail unions, December and January’s actions were at least mutually reinforcing. Under existing anti-union laws, however, no union may strike without jumping through a dozen legal hoops and no union may lead a sympathy strike without falling foul of the law.

As the New Statesman recorded recently: “When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the high court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.

“When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine-tooth comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the high court, and then the court of appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws.” (Keeping up with the commuters: the story of the failure of Southern Rail by Conrad Landin, New Statesman, 14 December 2016)

But what about the ‘infringement’ of the right of workers to withdraw their labour as and when they choose? The right to strike, after all, is enshrined in the UN’s international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, to which Britain is a signatory. (See Yes, striking is a human right by Keith Ewing, Guardian, 26 March 2010)

And what about the rights of the 87 percent of Aslef drivers, on a turnout of 77 percent, who demanded that the union take industrial action? To return to their proper function as fighting organs of the working class, unions have no choice but to break the law before the law breaks them.

Undermining Network Rail

The strike wave coincides with transport chief Chris Grayling’s move to undermine the national role of the public body, Network Rail.

It will be remembered that Network Rail’s privatised predecessor Railtrack had such a poor safety and financial management record that the government felt obliged to return responsibility for rail infrastructure to the public sector in 2002. Now Grayling has announced that a planned rail link between Oxford and Cambridge is to be taken out of Network Rail’s hands and placed once more into the tender mercies of the capitalist market.

As the Guardian reported recently: “A new organisation, East West Rail, will be created early in 2017 to secure investment and build the line, eventually becoming a private company that will operate train services. In the meantime, Grayling will demand that Network Rail and TOCs work more closely together in the interests of passengers, with proposals for more ‘vertical integration’ to be built into the upcoming South Eastern and East Midlands franchises.

“Grayling will say: ‘I believe it will mean they run better on a day-to-day basis … Our railway is much better run by one joined-up team of people. They don’t have to work for the same company. They do have to work in the same team.’” (Chris Grayling unveils plans for fully privatised rail line by Gwyn Topham and Matthew Weaver, Guardian, 6 December 2016)

So the government’s solution to the fragmentation, unaccountability and petty rivalries that privatisation has inevitably bred in the previously integrated national rail service is … more privatisation! Yet whilst the unions will with perfect logic point out that the best way to ensure rail travel is ‘run by one joined-up team of people’ would be to renationalise the whole caboodle, this will cut no ice with capitalism, for which profit must take precedence over social need.

With overproduction glutting the commodity markets, monopoly capital must hasten to broaden the scope of speculative investment to mop up any pockets of public service that remain under public administration. This is the inescapable logic of the capitalist system.