Rail commuters may be too angry to enjoy the irony, but rail privatisation
has created a strong case not only for retaking public control of the rail
system, but for national pay bargaining too.
We have learned – with a vengeance – that the fragmented rail system militates
against investment and efficiency. It has also created tensions over pay that
make good industrial relations almost impossible.
Passengers have borne delays, cancellations and overcrowded trains with
remarkable patience. They now bear the brunt of rail strikes with more action
threatened. The workforce may have a profound sense of grievance, but it is
wrong that in a key public service the public should be pawns in a breakdown of
industrial relations. And in this, as in all disputes, bad management has as
fundamental a role as union militancy.
What we are witnessing is as much a failure of good training, recruitment,
remuneration and management as of negotiating strategy. At the heart of the pay
row is the anger ordinary RMT members feel at the disparity between drivers’
wages and their own.
Boosting pay by forcing rival companies to match pay levels or lose staff in
a tight labour market is not a new negotiating strategy. It was one of the
original reasons for collective pay bargaining. ASLEF proposes its return.
But is there more than one way out of this maze? Although it is still the
exception for employment relations to break down to the point of industrial
action, it highlights the need for a different approach.
The Prime Minister has called on South West Trains and the RMT to appoint an
independent arbitrator. Neither side is keen. Meanwhile, the economic
consequences escalate. The Centre for Economics and Business Research reports
that the South West Trains strike alone is estimated to cost £6.1m a day in
lost gross domestic product, and to affect almost one in five of London’s
These figures, combined with a seeming neglect for the public voice in this
debate, make a case for the Government to review the merit of ‘public interest’
mediation by an independent arbitrator to prevent or resolve industrial
disputes on key services.
The existence of such a mechanism would force employee relations on to every
board’s regular agenda. Union leaders may fear the loss of a key negotiating
tool but, in recent years, the modernising unions have proved their ability to
become creative bargainers.
If the union’s case is as strong as it claims, it has nothing to fear and a
lot to benefit from workplace practices in which industrial relations have a central
role. It might even be the harbinger of a national bargaining system that would
eliminate the discrepancies and inequities that have inflamed worker opinion.
By Will Hutton, Chief executive, The Industrial Society