England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

RMT ballot results show rail workers are still ready to fight! But where now?

By a Network Rail worker and Socialist Alternative member 

On 21 June 2022, the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) entered a dispute with Network Rail and TOCs (Train Operating Companies) over pay and working conditions. This was, in many ways, the flagship dispute which helped ignite the still-ongoing strike wave. It inspired workers in other industries to take their own action against greedy bosses and unfair working conditions, in what has been the biggest strike wave in over 40 years.

The deal put forward by Network Rail and accepted by the RMT leadership 20 March 2023 was described by Mick Lynch as a ‘modest’ deal. In many ways this is a significant understatement! The deal represented a real-terms pay cut, when inflation and especially the increase in the price of food is taken into account. The improvement in working conditions offered, and the promise of no compulsory redundancies are both minimal and for a short period of time. 

The accepted deal had better pay terms and conditions than what was initially proposed. The bosses were forced to make concessions they did not want to make, all due to continued strike action across the sector. Not only that, but thanks to the determination of striking workers, many individuals who were at risk of losing their job twelve months ago have remained in employment, and those that aren’t involved in union work, and especially young people who have maybe had little introduction or reason to join a union over the last few years, have seen an unexpected pay rise and are seeing the power and benefits of collective action and striking together.

However, what is also clear is that the terms of this deal fall far short of what rail workers need, as well as for the future of the service as a whole. Even the slim gains of this deal will also be challenged by the bosses, who will try and drive down conditions given the first chance. This is why this settlement should only be seen as the foundation for a continued and escalating struggle. There is now an opportunity to recruit new members to the union, to learn from mistakes, and to build upon the strength and perseverance of our members. 

How we can win

On 4 May, the RMT balloted for a new round of strike action across 14 different TOCs. The result was a resounding success in each ballot, in all cases by a significant margin. This is a strong indication of workers’ willingness to fight. It shows that, even approaching a year into the dispute, the resolve of rail workers is still not something to be trifled with.

So the next question is, how do we end this dispute with the win that we all want and need? 

The RMT must build upon the momentum and power felt among its membership, built in the first round of strike action. There needs to be a union-wide campaign for the recruitment of new and especially young members to ensure the union is in a strong position to negotiate and fight for its members. 

The RMT leadership must not be afraid to escalate the strike action. Instead of taking sporadic strike days which yield no results and can create drawn out and unsuccessful disputes, they must push for frequent and hard-hitting strike action. The members of the union are determined members who are ready to fight. 

However, when our leadership allows a dispute to go on for months and months and months, with no increase in pay or improved conditions, it can get harder to keep up momentum. This method has been clearly demonstrated to not work! A different approach, for instance taking two days of action a week and continued unrelentingly could push the bosses into a corner and settle the dispute in a much smaller window of time. 

We also must not cancel any strike days unless an offer democratically decided to be acceptable has been presented to us. Cancelling strikes solely to “enable talks” is harmful to striking members and serves the purpose of the bosses, not the workers. 

A democratic, coordinated escalating course of action is needed for the full realisation of the power of workers within the union. Action, chosen democratically, so that the dates picked are the ones more beneficial to its members and most harmful to the profits of the employers and the private companies must be taken. 

Coordination is still key

Many members of the RMT have instinctively used our initiative to connect our struggles to the struggles of other workers. We have seen this in Manchester, where our members supported nurses on strike in a show of solidarity, as well as campaigning and joining in with the May Day protests. 

However this approach must be replicated nationally, and across as much of the trade union movement as possible to be as widely effective in winning gains for workers in dispute everywhere. Only through joint action and solidarity can we build the movement to change society in our favour and drive out the Tories. 

Potential to do just this has been seen a number of times, for instance on March 15, when 700,000 workers across multiple sectors took action together, with education workers in the lead. Earlier, the Enough is Enough campaign showed enormous potential to be a launching pad for rank-and-file resistance to the bosses and Tories. Since then however, leaders of multiple unions, including Lynch, have wound down use of EIE as a mobilising tool and mistakenly failed to make full use of it. Where EIE continues to exist at a local level however, it can still play an important role in linking up the striking workers and coordinating the fightback.

Fighting reps and union activists should also coordinate at the base of our union. A democratically organised, branch-led rep and activists conference could be a powerful forum for preparing the strategy we need to win. We can look towards health, where rank-and-file campaigns like NHS Workers Say NO were key to delivering the vote to continuing action which took place in the RCN the other week. 

No time to lose

The time between this dispute and the one that will erupt soon over next year’s pay is shortening. It is not entirely impossible that this dispute settles and that another dispute and round of striking kicks off before the end of the year. With the previous deal put forward stating no compulsory redundancies until January 2025 – which sounded a lot more beneficial to workers at the start of the dispute than at the end – it is not going to be that long until we’re again out on the pickets defending jobs, pay and working conditions.

Through a series of escalating actions, the RMT can win a deal that is fair to its members. It can provide inspiration for the rest of the workers movement, and play an important role on the path toward a fairer society that puts the needs of the workers above the needs of a rich few. 

Socialist Alternative calls for:

  • Maximum coordination and escalation! Link rail disputes with striking health, education and other workers fighting for their future. ASLEF must get on board and join our struggle. 
  • A national campaign to recruit new and young members to the RMT on the basis of a fighting programme
  • End the rail robbery! Renationalise all the railways, under the democratic control of workers, passengers in the interests of all. No compensation for big business!

(Photo: Paul McGowan)


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