Network Rail’s strike injunction hurts us all

Saturday, 3rd April 2010 at 15:15 UTC 2 comments

As most of you will gather by now, the RMT Strike against Network Rail has been forcibly cancelled by a high-court injunction on account of supposed voting irregularities. The injunction might bring short-term relief to thousands of rail users, but as the strike was planned for working days, its a very short-sighted gain, and people simply shouldn’t be celebrating it.One of the most interesting anecdotal discoveries I have made when it comes to striking is that many of those who join strikes are surprised to be doing so. I remember a tutor at York College, a devout Christian who spent years teaching in a church school in Latin America, explaining that she had been completely against the idea of going on strike only 6 months before she joined the pickets against the handling of the merger between York Technical College and York Sixth Form College. Just because one doesn’t feel the need for the right to strike now doesn’t mean one will never be relieved to have recourse to the removal of labour in a tight pinch.

For today’s Trade Unions, rarely is a strike a rushed process. It can’t be, such is the volume of constraint that has been placed on the whole process by successive governments. To be able to afford to run the kind of balloting required is somewhat ridiculous; if it had been a ballot by caucus, none of the irregularities being listed could have occurred. Such a ballot requires all branches to hold meetings at which voting is done by show of hands. You can’t have a show of hands in a demolished signal box!

Also, those balloted were strongly in favour, so how could a small number of errant votes turn around the end result? Furthermore, this action refers only to one of two ballots the RMT held (the other for maintainence staff) which turns out to be valid. Why fudge one and not the other, especially given the signallers are clearly the more agitated, and thus more likely to vote for a strike?

What is somewhat puzzling is that the government sanctioned “Electoral Reform Society”, the very people who detail how an election is to be run under Alternative Vote or Single Transferable Vote carried out this vote. I do wonder if perhaps the RMT should seek compensation from the Electoral Reform Society. Apparently the accusation is that the RMT supplied the wrong records for the ballot, though, but have you ever tried keeping a membership list for an organisation with over 1000 members and contacts? If you’re a member of Conservative Futures reading this, are you going to claim your society’s membership list is correct, and no one on it would be surprised by this fact?

Of course, this isn’t what the media have focused on. They’ve all had problems with their own internal unions refusing to be bullied and their own staff refusing to be shoved against the wall, so its hardly surprising that the media line is so one-sided against the unions. What is dismaying is that the public are falling for this. Without the recourse to strike action being a very real threat, the equation is entirely one sided. We have the right to strike not because we should need it, but because we shouldn’t.

People’s impressions of union action seem to be framed around the idea that a powerless company being harassed by militant and overly demanding staff. But this makes out that the company is entirely virtuous, when it has the upper hand at all times. Alongside striking, the union has a small repertoire of tools to deal with the pressures placed on its members, whilst the employer has many more. Most, if not all, strikes in Britain today happen because conditions are worsening, not out of some entitlement to something new. There also seems a latent belief amongst society that those on strike should just roll over and be kicked; loyalty to boss rather than to task. And this is where the RMT differ. Many of those at the top of these organisations don’t care about railways, they care about business. Those who care about railways are working under strain to keep them running, to keep people moving. The lack of sense in endlessly submitting to profit-driven objectives in a safety critical environment should be straightforward enough. How we convince people to identify with the workers and not the bosses is another matter, for next it could be those who sneer who become the victim of ill-feeling towards the worker’s right to withdraw labour during a dispute.

Entry filed under: Activism, Freedom, Human Rights, Politics, Travel, Unionism, Workers.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Neil T.  |  Saturday, 3rd April 2010 at 15:30 UTC

    I seem to recall the result was 54% of those who voted were in favour of a strike – hardly ‘strong’ support, assuming it was a ‘yes/no’ question.

    With the signallers’ strike, I believe the job losses were due to the closure of some manual signal boxes and the move to Integrated Control Centres like in York, which control large parts of the network from a central base with the aid of computers. The York one, for example, controls lines as far west as Skipton. The computerisation invariably leads to job losses as less people are involved, but it increases safety. Computers can be made failsafe – humans often can’t.

    The ‘safety’ issue was more RMT spin to drum up public support for the strike. Take away that, and all they are doing is trying to protect jobs from modernisation. You can argue whether that is a good thing or not.

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Sunday, 4th April 2010 at 12:27 UTC

      There is evidence that long-arm train control, particularly on the difficult lines that still have signal boxes, eventually becomes a liability. Its not all one-sided as far as safety is concerned.

      The 54% thing was a confusion with the original BA strike vote, which was 80% in favour out of a turnout of 80% of members, so physically impossible for the disputed ballot papers to overturn the result of the election, but still an injunction was imposed. This was the point I was trying to make about the exercising of this particular law.


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