Jhe railroad has long been preparing for what is billed as the biggest industrial battle in a generation. Now, with the weapon of a nationwide strike vote underway, the RMT rail union must decide whether to pull the trigger.
Its national executive committee will discuss next steps in the coming days, after 40,000 Network Rail members and 15 rail operating companies voted overwhelmingly for action. For now, he officially invites more talks with train operating companies – a slightly perplexed position for some industry players, who said the RMT took the plunge before talks on wages began. .
Nonetheless, many expect the first of what will likely be a series of 24-hour shutdowns to be called in late June. At an estimated daily cost of £30m, it will prove, as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has warned, damaging for an industry very much in recovery mode, but not necessarily a full-fledged logistical crisis for the countries, as some have suggested.
Senior railway officials were appalled when Shapps said ministers were considering limiting the right to strike – a move that inevitably inflamed unions. More thoughtful parts of government have been quietly trying to avoid conflict: the bosses are drawing up contingency plans that won’t work if all the railway unions join the strike.
For the RMT, there is a significant gap in an otherwise unanimous vote, with Govia Thameslink Railway employees supporting only action apart from a strike. GTR contains three major commuter operations, Thameslink, Great Northern and Southern. The latter was the scene of bitter and protracted strikes in 2016-17, a time when most of its customers were forced to come to London to work regardless.
Office staff are now proven to be well capable of working from home – a change that will significantly reduce the political pressure on suburban belt MPs to settle strikes at all costs. And without continuous strikes for more than 72 hours, there is little chance of disruption to goods or electricity supplies, despite dire warnings about the critical role of rail freight.
The Southern strikes are also a reminder that RMT train staff were not enough, even then, to force a total shutdown – or to completely halt the reforms they were fighting against.
The RMT’s critical weapon in any strike this time around will be its 20,000 Network Rail members, including around 5,000 flagmen, who would be able to stop large parts of the network running. But the newer parts of the railway – such as Thameslink and trunk trunk lines – use digital signaling which can be operated by a handful of staff, allowing non-RMT managers and signalmen to maintain limited service.
Other unions could still play a role, including the TSSA, which represents more middle managers – including emergency personnel – and would have leverage in combined action. Train drivers’ union Aslef is unlikely to act before the autumn – but as a dispute in Scotland shows, even pulling out of work on rest days can have a massive impact in an industry short of drivers .
Yet the impasse threatens to worsen. There is no obvious answer to changing travel patterns and declining railway revenues, which have so many fixed costs. One target could be rolling stock companies, which have continued to make huge profits. But railway wages and productivity will come first – and the prospect of a quiet settlement, with the kind of indexed pay rise normally enjoyed by all ranks, has faded with runaway inflation.
It makes the stakes higher for staff, whose salaries are being eroded, but also for ministers, who appear to be heeding – despite protests – Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey, who has called for wage moderation to curb inflation, despite the cost of- living crisis.
The biggest immediate political headache may not be so much that the railway stalls – but that the outcome will be watched carefully by other parts of the public sector, also desperate for a pay rise, who may wearing the pandemic frontline hero badge with even more justification than railroad personnel.