Amid the oppressively hot weather this summer there has been a smog of confusion surrounding train strikes. They seem to have been threatened many times by various groups over issues as diverse as pensions, hours and free taxis. Yet just as frequently, and confusingly, just when you think one is going to turn up, they all get cancelled – or at least seriously delayed.
The chaotic situation reached a head last month, when, on 19 July, the RMT union called off strikes by Network Rail operational staff set for the following weekend after agreeing a deal on pay and when a 35-hour week would be brought in.
Five days later, the same union called fresh strikes on Central Trains services – for 29 July, 5 August and 12 August – over disputes that included the same 35-hour week issue. At the same time, it called another strike with the same operator over a separate dispute on different grounds.
In the same week, strikes by train drivers’ union Aslef on South West Trains in late July and early August were called off after its ballot of members was deemed to be on shaky legal ground.
Train users could be forgiven for not being sure how and when they would be affected. So how has the rail industry got into this situation?
Spectre of the past
A major factor, according to the RMT, is the privatisation of the railways, which has left the UK with several operators and different unions, all fighting their own corners.
“When the railways are fragmented, industrial relations are fragmented as well,” explains an RMT spokesman. “It was very rare for a nationwide dispute under nationalisation.”
So there are now many more relationships to be tested. But why do so many of them become fractious?
Tellingly, RMT general secretary Bob Crow announced when calling the Central Trains strikes: “We hope that the company will now acknowledge our members’ frustration by starting to take their grievances seriously.”
By way of explanation, an Aslef spokesman says rail unions feel they do not get listened to unless they threaten strike action.
“Until they see the notice of strike, the big hitters do not come around the table,” he says.
Spooked by the unions
So does the threat of industrial action scare rail operators into conceding ground to the unions?
A spokesman for Network Rail says: “Inevitably when you have a heavily unionised industry, there will be negotiations. When the latest strikes were called, we went as far as we could to reach an agreement.”
But former South West Trains HR director Beverley Shears says the railways are ripe for threats of industrial action for two main reasons.
“Railways are a perishable product,” she says. “If Asda closes for a day, people will probably buy their milk the next day, but journeys are irretrievable. And the railways are also a goldfish bowl – as soon as there is a threat of a strike, the media picks up on it because it affects so many people.”
Back to reality
So the stakes are high and there’s lots of brinkmanship. In the end, however, it seems that both unions and operators are playing the same game – trying to get the biggest share of railway revenue for the people they represent.
“The operators have to make money for their shareholders,” says the RMT spokesman. “They are under pressure to reduce numbers of guards and station staff.”
And Shears adds: “It’s the politics of reality. The unions have members who are effectively shareholders, and they want the best deal for them.”