UK Rail Workers Prepare for Second Round of Strikes
After their bosses responded to last month’s 40,000-strong rail workers’ strike with a “paltry” contract offer, the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers are gearing up for another day of strike action on Wednesday, July 27.
Last month, roughly 40,000 UK rail workers with the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) went on strike for three days, bringing major portions of the British rail system to a halt in a historic show of collective strength. This week, after receiving a contract offer from state-owned Network Rail that union leaders described as “paltry,” the RMT announced that workers at Network Rail and the train operating companies will engage in another day of strike action on Wednesday, July 27. With these strikes, and in the ongoing negotiations, workers are fighting for livable wages at a time when the cost of living is spiraling out of control and corporate executives and shareholders are stuffing their pockets with cash. As Adam Bychawski writes, “Train companies paid out nearly £800m to shareholders last year before telling rail unions that employees must take a real-terms pay cut for them to stay afloat.” But workers are fighting for much more; they are fighting against years of austerity policies and corporate profit-generating schemes that have led to deteriorating working conditions and quality of service on the rails; they are fighting against further job losses for the sake of “modernization”‘; and they are fighting for better, safer, more accessible, and well-staffed rail services for the people who depend on them.
In this special panel episode, we speak with four rail workers and RMT members/officers — Mel Mullings, Clayton Clive, Cat Cray, and Gaz Jackson — about the strike and the importance of workers around the world standing in solidarity with strikers.
Additional links/info below…
- RMT Union National Dispute Fund
- RMT Union website, Facebook page, and Twitter page,
- Mel’s Twitter page
- Clayton’s Twitter page
- Manchester South RMT Twitter page
- Cat’s Twitter page
- Gaz’s Twitter page
- Rupert Pickering, Tribune, “Defend the RMT“
- Karl Hansen, Jacobin, “Britain’s Rail Workers Are Poised to Strike Against Austerity“
- Ronan Burtenshaw, Jacobin, “Britain’s Striking Rail Workers Are Drawing the Hatred of the Establishment“
- Matthew Weaver, The Guardian, “Mick Lynch: Rail Union Bruiser Who’s More Than a Match for the Media“
- Gwyn Topham & Tom Ambrose, The Guardian, “Train Services Cut as RMT Rail Strike Enters Third Day“
- Jasper Jolly, The Guardian, “Rail Workers to Strike Across Britain on 27 July, Union Announces“
- Mel Buer, The Real News Network, “Corporate Billionaires Are Wrecking the Supply Chain. Just Look at the Railroads“
Permanent links below…
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song
Mel Mullings: Right, so, greetings. I’m Mel Mullings, I’m a train driver for London Underground. I am the local rep at my depo, industrial relations rep. I am the secretary for the Black Solidarity Committee for the RMT union. I am the secretary of the Black and Ethnic Minority Advisory Committee for the RMT union. And I’m also the vice president of the Land and Transport Regional Council for the RMT union.
Gaz Jackson: Good evening, everybody. My name’s Gaz Jackson. I’m the RMT regional organizer for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. I’ve been a rail worker ever since I’ve left school. I was on the tracks as a train guard for 15 years before I had the honor of going on the RMT’s national executive and serving for two and a half years, before being elected to be the regional organizer for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.
Clayton Clive: Hello, I’m Clayton. I’m a train conductor for a best unnamed train company. I’m also the branch secretary for Manchester South of the RMT.
Cat Cray: Hi everyone, my name’s Cat Cray. I’m a local health and safety rep on the Harrow on Uxbridge area of the Metropolitan line, so that’s on London Underground. I’ve worked on the London Underground for 16 years. I’m an assistant branch secretary, and I’m also the assistant branch secretary of London Transport Region, as well as my local health and safety responsibilities.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right, well welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
So, as y’all heard, we’ve got a very special episode for y’all today. I am honored to be joined by Mel, Gaz, Clayton, and Cat across the pond to talk about a story that our listeners have been asking us a whole lot about. I’m sure, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably saw that rail workers in the United Kingdom launched a massive strike this past month. And that was a strike initiated by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers, which represents around 83,000 members from across every sector of the transport industry, from the main line in underground, railways, shipping and offshore, buses, and road freight. What we witnessed so far was truly a historic labor action, and we need to show all of the solidarity that we can with our siblings over there in the UK.
And just to make sure that everyone listening is up to speed, we’re obviously going to dig into the specifics here with our incredible panel today. But just to set the table here, I’m going to read from a BBC breakdown at the time that the strike was initiated last month, just to get some basics on the table. Please do not take this as a full-throated endorsement of the BBC’s coverage, or any network’s coverage of the RMT strike, which has been famously shitty. I guess us here in the States, we can sympathize with very negative, anti-labor coverage from the mainstream media. But anyway, I digress.
Here’s what the BBC wrote at the time that the strike began. “The RMT, which has tens of thousands of members, including everyone from guards and signalers, to catering staff and cleaners, called the strikes over job cuts, pay, and conditions. It says an offer of a 2% pay raise with the possibility of a further 1% was ‘unacceptable’, pointing to the rising cost of living with inflation forecast to reach 11%. Network Rail said it would offer a pay raise above 3%, but only if the union agreed to ‘modernize working practices’.” – Parenthesis, we know what the fuck that means.
Continuing on, “The RMT has also accused the government of preventing rail companies from freely negotiating on pay. Ministers say the dispute should be resolved between the unions and the employers. The RMT says another issue is that Network Rail plans to cut 2,500 maintenance jobs as it tries to save £2 billion over the next two years. The union says the jobs are safety critical.”
All right. So that’s just, again, a little scene setting for y’all. There’s obviously a lot more context that we want to dig into here. This strike did not come from nowhere. As we are seeing here in the United States with the amalgamated unions that represent workers on the railroads across the United States, we ourselves are actually inching towards a potential national rail shutdown, a historic rail shutdown, as contract negotiations between the unions and the body representing the different rail carriers have reached an impasse, and the US government’s attempts to mediate have so far proved fruitless. And so every day, we’re getting a bit closer to what could be a potential national rail shutdown. If you want to read more about that, go check out the report that we recently published at The Real News Network by Mel Buer, which I thought gave a really important breakdown of what’s going on, particularly in the freight rail industry here in the United States.
But I say all that to say that the problems that have led to the potential rail shutdown in the US, as Mel Buer reports, and as the interviews that I’ve done with rail workers have shown, those issues didn’t come from nowhere, and they didn’t start with the pandemic. These are long-brewing, systemic issues that, frankly, have been caused by the greed and corruption on the corporate side. Cost cutting, reducing staff, piling more work on fewer workers even if it means reducing the quality of service, endangering the employees who make the rails run. This stuff accrues over a period of years, if not decades.
So, I say all that as a preface to say, we’re going to talk to our great panel here to get more of a sense of what led us to this point, where last month tens of thousands of rail workers in the UK hit the picket line. And as things stand right now, this dispute is by no means over.
So with all of that in mind, I want to, again, thank our panelists for calling in across the pond. I know that y’all got a lot going on. We’re also having this conversation the fucking day after Boris Johnson resigned. So yeah, I don’t know, there’s a lot going on. And yeah, I’m just really grateful to y’all for making the time amidst all of that shit to sit down and chat with us.
I wanted to start, in the tradition of our show, getting to know a bit more about you four, how you got into doing the work that you do, and what that work has looked like over the course of your time working on the rails. So Mel, why don’t we start with you?
Mel Mullings: I started on the Underground in 2001, and have been in the RMT union ever since. I started on the stations, which means I was in the customer-facing role. Absolutely loved it. There were loads of staff around, the morale in the stations was fantastic back then, and you could move around freely. You had a section of groups where it was a cluster of stations. So, you would do a set of stations according to your roster, or according to wherever needed members of staff. There was lots of overtime going around. And you had a mixture, a very good mixture of older members of staff, younger members of staff, part-time members of staff, and it was a job for life when I started in 2001.
Let’s fast forward to now. I am a train driver. I’ve been a train driver for… I think it’s about 14 years now. I’ve seen the worst of what you can say is an absolute devastation of job roles on the station, terms and conditions for us. I think we had a major, I think, fight when we had the Olympics, that was a major fight in regards to our terms and conditions and what we call a framework agreement.
Now, our framework agreement is a very important document or policy that we have which governs how many hours we can work, where we work, how we work, and it’s for safety reasons. And that was torn up. In that particular dispute, you had a problem with other unions, because it wasn’t just our union that was fighting to make sure terms and conditions were upheld.
In terms of this particular fight that we’re having now, we’ve got the biggest fight that we have. And in terms of our terms of conditions, job cuts on the stations up about 600 – And I say about 600, I’m sure that’s just a conservative figure. Threats on our pensions. And you can imagine the problems that leads to. You’re talking about a lot more lone working, a lot more hours. So, our work-life balance being threatened, our health being threatened. Women’s safety. And I do know that it’s becoming a lot more prevalent now for people to be very on the ball in their activism towards women’s safety, but it is really a big problem on the Underground, and it’s something that really needs to be dealt with. And these cuts really make it a lot worse.
I personally, as a Black woman, I want to always highlight our vulnerable members of staff and our Black people on the Underground who face a lot of issues in terms of racism, discrimination, lack of job opportunities, and these cuts are going to make it even worse.
There is a groundswell of members of staff who are Black members, and I’m sure, Max, you can understand I’m using the political term Black. It’s not just African people I’m referring to when I use Black. And what we have is we have women who are already on part-time wages who are being told that they have to demote themselves because they’re having childcare issues and [inaudible]. And also, we have Black women, who are affected by menopause in a very different way. It sounds like I’m moving away from the trains, I’m not, but I do actually represent quite a few women on the stations as well. So, I haven’t just gone off onto the trains and lost touch with the stations, I’m very much in touch with the stations.
But back onto the trains very quickly before I pass on. Two years ago on my line, the Bakerloo line, we were given cuts. There was an imposition of them. So we went to a meeting which is called a schedule meeting. And within that meeting, we were told we were going to lose 10% due to natural wastage.
Now, the wonderful thing about being a rep is that you go into meetings and you listen to the language that the employees use and the managers use, who are employees as well. We have to remember that. So, employees working against employees, not employees trying to help their own workers into a better situation. It’s always the managers. They pick certain types of personalities to become managers so that they can heartlessly, I would say, personally I think it’s quite heartless, to impose very draconian ways on us.
London Underground needs investment. It needs subsidies, it needs investment. And each time we’re told that they’re going broke and there’s no investment in place. Now, that is to tell you how much of a weak government we have in our country in regards to the fact that our public transport system is key to run London. I mean, without public transport, especially in London, running everything down to a total halt. And our members of staff are the most important people. Back in the day, you would have visually impaired people, people with disabilities, and you’d be able to walk away from your customer-facing role, escort them to where they’re going, talk to them like they’re human beings, treat them like they’re the important people that they are, and actually place them onto their train safely. Now you can’t do that.
As a driver, I feel my job is threatened, because whenever I need a member of staff to assist me, in the back of my head I know that I am possibly taking a member of staff away from a situation where they’re very skimmed in terms of their numbers upstairs to help me downstairs. And maybe I might be pressured to do something that is unsafe. For me personally, obviously I’ve been on the Underground long enough to be able to resist doing anything unsafe, but there are people that will feel the pressure to do unsafe things and possibly – And this is not an exaggeration – Cause fatalities, cause very real life incidents that will have irreversible damage.
And just lastly, before we go around, I just wanted to say, as reps we don’t just go along with things that we’re told. We instruct the leadership according to what our members are saying. So, when we have our massive mandates to strike, I would like the public to understand that’s because it’s taken a long time to map out the feel of what is going on within those negotiations, to decipher what that language actually means, not what they want the press to believe it means. And so, all you crazy RMT people are going out on strike for no reason. That is absolutely not true.
We are very in tune with our membership. Our reps do a very… I would say a difficult role, because we are having to have conversations with people who are going to lose pay, who are going to be character assassinated within the media. And we have to stand strong. We have to make those demands very clear and stand strong, and it’s not easy. So, any solidarity that we’re getting, we really appreciate it, because it’s hard out there now. The cost of living crisis is absolutely grinding us down, and our demands need to be met in order to just have a decent life. We’re not asking for any more than what we deserve. Thank you.
Gaz Jackson: Yeah. So I started on the railway straight from school. My father was a train driver until he sadly passed away at a young age. So, he inspired me to come and work on the railway because he always told me that it was a tough job, but it was always a good job, and it was always a good job for life. I’m sad to say that we’re seeing people leave the industry, going to work in different industries nowadays, because the pay and the terms and conditions aren’t where they used to be. It was a well respected job working on the railway and I absolutely respect everybody that still does work there, but people are seeing it a lot differently from the outside looking in.
Currently I’m the regional organizer for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, which is towards the Northeast of England. So my responsibilities are the organization of workers. I organize around four and a half thousand members, that’s my responsibility. We have 16 branches which meet on a monthly basis, which I try to get to as many as possible as I can. We also meet as a regional council four times a year to bring everything together.
Regarding the national dispute that we’re currently going through, of course, nobody wants to go on strike. We all want to try and get to a negotiated position. And it just shows how effective unions are, because it’s the first time in nearly 40 years that we’ve had a national dispute and a national strike.
I believe it was the late 1980s that we had a national dispute. So, trade unions and companies do work together to resolve these issues. But the issue that we’ve got with this dispute is we’re not being allowed to negotiate with the companies. We’re not being allowed to negotiate with the train operating companies and Network Rail.
Network Rail have come out and said that they want to remove 3,000 people’s jobs, which is going to make the railway in the UK an unsafe place to be. 3,000 people that are responsible for the maintenance of the truck. We’re going to be going back to the early 1990s in the rail track days when we had all the disasters in a short space of time. And we all saw that the government had to take over because the way that the maintenance of the railway was then was unacceptable. And we can’t allow that to happen.
The right-wing media over in the UK have been saying it’s all about pay. It’s all about pay. Well it’s not, because if we haven’t got a job, it doesn’t matter whether you get a 5% pay rise or a 25% pay rise. So, the key to the door is we’ve got to be able to secure the jobs first, and then we can talk about other things after.
Clayton Clive: So, I started on the railway in 2016, I started for a company called Northern, which runs mostly commuter services, short distance services, passenger services around the North of England. And about a year into me being at Northern, we got plunged into a dispute against driver-only operation, which was basically the company wanted to remove my job. I think the actual plan was they wanted 70% of route miles they operated to be run with driver-only operated trains by 2020.
So, me as a conductor, I control the doors. I’ve got safety responsibilities, I’m trained to evacuate the train. I look after the passengers, sell tickets. They wanted to remove our job. And that happened, that kicked off… I was obviously immediately a member of the union, but that really ignited my involvement in the union. And between the beginning of 2017 and the beginning of 2019, we had 47 days on strike.
At the end of 2018, our branch secretary Michelle Rogers became the first woman president of the RMT. I was then plunged into the position of becoming the branch secretary for our branch, I think partly because maybe nobody else wanted to do it. I’m not quite sure if I got that on merit or if I got that out of bad luck. We’re a branch of 1500 people, I think we’re one of the biggest outside of London. So, I’ve been in the unique position with the national dispute of not only organizing the picket lines for my own depot as an industrial rep for the train company I work for now, but also trying to organize picket lines for the rest of the branch. And to give you an idea of the sort of numbers of people that are on strike in this national dispute, at a rough count, out of the 1,500 members in my branch, 977 of them were balloted. So, we had a colossal number of people out on strike, but it’s been quite the wild ride.
Cat Cray: So, I joined the railway 2000 and… I always get the year wrong. The year after the London bombings, was that 2006? It’s 2006. I started on stations, and I remain on stations to this day. I joined the union straight away. I started part-time and had two jobs, and then got a promotion so I went full-time. I went into the ticket offices, and then I went for another promotion and started to run tube stations, that’s being a station supervisor.
Around 2016, several things happened on the London Underground that really got me more and more involved in the union. And that was a program called Fit For The Future, in which they closed all of our ticket offices and tried to get rid of a significant amount of station staff. And they got away with some of it, but not all of it. Our union on its own got 450 jobs back. But also, significantly, in 2016, literally at the beginning of 2017, but the Trade Union Act 2016 came into power, and that put requirements on trade unionists, on workers, to meet thresholds that voters in elections don’t have to meet.
It is created as a means to stop workers striking. So, a set amount have to turn out, and of those that turn out, a set amount have to vote yes, and if you don’t meet that threshold, you can’t legally strike. And that is amongst many other things. So, currently in circulation are discussions about providing minimum service on strike. So, essentially we had this big battle in 2016, ironically, around the time Boris Johnson stopped being mine and Mel’s boss. He was the Mayor of London, our now ex-prime minister. And Khan, Sadiq Khan, who’s currently the mayor, took over in the middle of all this, but Boris Johnson had done that work.
So, I went through all of that and I got very politicized, and I had great female mentors that took me into branch meetings that can be quite off-putting. We’re a male-dominated industry and therefore our branches are like that, and it can be quite intimidating. And I had good peers, I had good mentors around me that got me involved, and I became a rep, and I remain the activist that I am.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell, yeah. Well, I mean, we already started to touch on this in what y’all were saying there on that first round, but if we could go back around and get a little deeper into that long view of how we ended up where we are right now and making sure that anyone listening to this in the UK or outside of the UK understands what’s been happening to this industry and what special context they need to know to understand the current dispute.
I mentioned up top that I myself have learned a shit ton about the conditions in the US freight rail service by investigating the current dispute that’s happening here in the United States. And what I didn’t realize is that these rail companies, the rail carriers that are making billions of dollars of profits while the supply chain is on its knees, they have been pushing this sort of cost cutting crap for years, even before the pandemic.
Listeners may be shocked to know, you guys have heard us talk with folks about the BNSF railway workers who were going to go on strike at the beginning of this year and actually had their strike blocked by a court at the behest of BNSF, the company. The court said that a strike would cause “Irreparable damage to the company.” But it didn’t say shit about the irreparable damage that their draconian attendance policy was going to have on workers. And lo and behold, six months later that attendance policy has been running workers into the ground. People are quitting in record numbers, trains are sitting idle. So it’s been, according to railroad employees, the disaster that they predicted it to be.
So that’s where I found out about the story and started reporting on it. And then I found out that, in fact, the rail companies are complaining about a labor shortage right now that they have caused. They eliminated, collectively, around 30% of their workforce since 2015. We’re talking around 40,000 workers who have been fired across the different rail companies from 2015 to now. And now they’re talking about a labor shortage.
At the same time that these rail companies are trying to achieve their long-sought goal to reduce the crew sizes on these massive freight rail trains down to one person. Right now they’re two people crews on trains that are like a mile long. They’ve gotten heavier, they’ve gotten longer, they’re more unwieldy to drive. The rail companies want to have just one person on those trains, and the unions are fighting tooth and nail. So, that’s what I mean when I say that it’s important context to have to understand why US rail workers are so pissed right now.
So, I wanted to go back around and toss it back to Mel and ask, what does the current dispute say about the trend in the rail industry in the UK? And what sort of nuances should people have? I know that between the UK and the US we have like these Frankenstein’s monsters where private companies can own the rail lines, or they own the cars but not the rail lines. So, any details like that. And also, what have those changes in the industry looked like in your working life? How have they translated to what you go through on a day-to-day basis? So Mel, let me toss it back to you.
Mel Mullings: Yeah. I’ve got, I think, a very good perspective on how we’ve got to this position. When I was on the stations, there was ample possibility for me to… My oldest son is 18, and I’ve been on the underground for nearly 21 years. So, what I’m saying is I never had any problems in regards to being able to move around and be somewhere that was a bit more suited for a woman who was pregnant at the time. Now in terms of women’s safety, in terms of when they’re pregnant or going through fertility treatments, even though there’s so much information out there, you would think that our managers didn’t have a clue as to how to manage a member of staff who is going through something that, oh, should I ask you, the manager, to have my baby for me, then, while I go and work? It’s ridiculous that we can have so many forward advancements in the way that we should be treating people in regards to their safety while at work. And we’ve already talked about the underground being… It’s a safety critical job, but there are places that we can go.
I’ve worked in admin offices for a little while and I’ve worked on stations in the ticket office, which is, I would consider that a safe place for a pregnant woman to go. Now, as Cat mentioned, we have no ticket offices. We have a little box that sits on the station near the gate line, which half the locks don’t work, maybe even more of the locks don’t work. I’m not exaggerating, and it sounds like I’m being tongue in cheek, but these are actual real problems that are happening.
So, these are what increases the frustration. You’re having to have case conferences with management, with incompetent managers. You would think they don’t have brothers and sisters, siblings, parents that have also maybe had ill health in their life, that they would treat you like a human being. They literally treat us like trash, and it’s astounding.
You can’t go into any form of disciplinary, even a local disciplinary, without your rep present, because there is a fear there that they’re trying to find a way to sack you, or fire you from your job, or start the process. And they’re very disingenuous. They’ll tell you, oh, come and talk to us about anything that’s going on with your life, and whatever. And then when you get into the meeting, they’ll use it to put you in a worse position than you are. I’ve had members of staff have redeployment thrown in their faces just after the first month of them being unavailable to do their normal duties due to normal ill health.
Through the pandemic, mental health skyrocketed, and there were quite a few members… I mean, I’ll be honest with you, my depot was quite decent in regards to how members of staff were treated, but there were other depots and other stations and other managers who treated their members of staff like crap. It was an unprecedented time, and there were rules that you could follow to the book and there were rules you couldn’t. I’ve got a lady who has a nonverbal son who is autistic, and she had to come into work. She was threatened that if she didn’t come into work, she would lose pay. So, I told her, don’t come into work, because the guidelines actually protect you. And the manager wanted to interpret one part of the guidelines when that particular part of the guidelines was not relevant to her. So he was reading out a part of it to her, making it sound as if she didn’t come into work she would be under disciplinary, wherein there was space within the policy to actually help her stay at home with her nonverbal son to make sure that he was safe. She was actually able to shield with her son.
So the rules have changed in that you can’t just have an informal conversation with management and expect to have a positive outcome out of that conversation. The rules have changed that when you go onto the stations, you are literally looking around, around, around and around for an available member of staff. The rules have changed where, for me, there are many incidents, and sometimes fatalities. And there will be what we call the ORR, which is an official independent body that investigates incidents, and they will make recommendations. It is possible for the company to ignore those recommendations.
So then therefore, there will be a part of a track that we’re driving on that has an extreme bend, where when you come to a halt at that station, you cannot see the whole platform. It’s just impossible. Especially when it’s in peak time when there’s lots of customers coming on and off the trains. Now, we need an extra member of staff on that platform to stop someone falling through that gap and us possibly dragging them to their death. That used to be available.
If I called up the control and said, look, I can’t see the whole of the platform. They’ll just tell me to wait and a member of staff will come down. What I will hear is, oh, there’s not a member of staff available. And they think that’s okay, and it’s not okay. I’m putting myself at risk. I’m putting somebody else’s life at risk because they’re not staffing the stations properly.
In terms of the relationship that we have between us and the staff, before, you would see members of staff doing their station checks and they wave. We don’t wave to each other any more because everyone’s so frustrated. Everyone’s on edge now. And again, that might sound like a trivial thing, but my spirit just lights up when I see another member of staff. And the first thing I want to do is talk to that member of staff to bring up their day. And it just doesn’t happen any more, it doesn’t happen.
And in terms of the joy on public transport, I’m a customer myself. When I go with my children or other family members, and it’s really difficult. If you don’t know where you’re going in London or anywhere, it’s difficult. Our system is not the easiest system to understand and get to grips with on London Underground, you really need members of staff there with you.
In terms of the negotiation process, when we used to have a mandate before going into ACAS – I’ve been into ACAS, which is our independent body that facilitates negotiations between the unions or other unions and the employers – And you go into those negotiations with a mandate. The company usually knows what time it is, they know that they’re on the back foot, and that they have to come up with something really good to prevent any action escalating.
Nowadays it’s like pulling teeth. You go into the negotiation process with a mandate, it’s as if the company just doesn’t care. And then they go into the right-wing media, and in recent times they’ve portrayed that we’ve run out of negotiations, which wasn’t true. They’ve portrayed that we jumped the gun, which wasn’t true. They portrayed that this dispute is not about the things that it is about, which is our terms and conditions, our pensions, the job cuts, the fact that they’re not bringing our cleaners in-house, that they have these precarious contracts with really bad employers like ABM, who is a cleaning company, and they are woeful the way they treat our members of staff, our cleaning staff, who, as you know, our system could not manage without them. And the way that they are treated, and the fact that they’re not paid properly.
My grandma, who’s still alive, who’s actually in the US at the moment. She was a cleaner for National Rail, and every year she would get her travel tickets. So, she could travel anywhere nationally. And it was just fine that she got her priv, which basically is a privilege ticket, which gives her a reduced amount if she wanted to travel on the tube. We don’t get that stuff anymore. All our privileges are being taken away from us.
A couple of years ago, I remember Sadiq Khan, our labor candidate for mayor. He’s the mayor now, wanting to take our nominee passes away from us. That’s free travel for our spouse, our children, for me. Luckily for me, I was able to have au pairs for a while and they needed to be able to travel around because they were helping me raise my children so I could go to work.
So, all these things are real life things that affect us, and these are the reasons why these disputes escalate and escalate, because there’s so much stuff around the disputes. Going into any form of disciplinary nowadays is just not something you want to happen. Any form of ill health that you face, any form of attendance issues that you may face, even if you think it’s legitimate. Your care responsibilities, carers, again, these are things that people should understand. People with autistic children, people who are looking after parents, or members of their family who are in some form of difficulty or might be going through some form of sickness, cancer, all kinds of stuff. And the pressures that we face to come into work every single day and be present at our jobs while we have our issues outside of our jobs, it’s really difficult.
And again, I will always mention my Black members of staff and my members. We are 40% density in our union, and our voices and our problems matter. So, you’re talking about the Nationality and Borders Bill. You’re talking about the Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, which was… These bills – Sorry, they’re acts now, so they’re just waiting for Royal approval. And these acts target Black people, because we are apparently low-hanging fruit. And we’ve recently done a seminar within the advisory committee for the Black members in regards to, suppose for instance, because of the pandemic your paperwork was delayed, because a lot of people’s paperwork has been delayed over the pandemic. And the employer decides, oh well, your paperwork is now out of date. What will happen?
So, these are also real life problems that can happen to vulnerable members of staff in their work life. So in terms of what the union is fighting for, the nuances around it are very technical. It’s not just industrial relations and stuff. We are talking about global stuff that can really affect our members of staff. It’s supposed to be a welcoming country. There’s nothing about the UK that’s welcoming to migrant workers, immigrant workers, you know because of the harsh way that we are treated, the way that we are talked about, the way that the home office and their department deals with us. It’s quite an emotional thing to watch someone being carted off, and they’re being the main breadwinner of their family and being put in detention. And now the main breadwinner of that family is away, not able to work. And another part of life is being destroyed.
It is a difficult situation where you are literally always villainized in the media in some way, somehow, for something. Even if it is just because you are a Black member of staff, or it’s because they’re calling you greedy. Now, I’m a hard working woman. I’ve always been a hard working woman. My colleagues are very hard working. I’m talking people who are going through cancer treatment still coming into work, even though their bladders are shot, their immune system is shot, just because they can’t just retire. Early retirement is impossible now. You’re probably going to end up seeing me driving trains at 60 and 65. I can’t imagine it, but I’m having to realistically consider it, because that’s the way life is going now. So, all these changes that we’re facing now are just going in a bad direction that we’re trying very hard to fight against and reverse. And we’re going to keep on that fight. Thank you.
Gaz Jackson: So, I’m going to start with this. Trade unions, we’re not here to manage decline, and that’s quite clearly what the government and companies want to do. We’re not here to manage their downfalls. We’re there to make a difference and to defend our members and to better our members’ lives, not make them worse. So, when I become an officer of this union, the RMT – Which is an absolute great honor, by the way – That’s one of the things that I will always make sure that I always do, my best for our members, and I won’t manage decline. I won’t. I will fight until the absolute bitter end and until our members are happy with the outcome of any situation or dispute.
It always benefits everybody if we can get into a negotiating position. Absolutely it does, but we’re left with no other choice. Here in the UK, Mel touched on it, we’ve got the worst anti-trade union laws in the whole of Europe. In this dispute that we’ve just balloted for, we’ve got 43,000 members that have balloted on the national rail service, and we needed 22,000 of them to vote before we could even kick the football, before we could even do anything. Whether that meant the vote yes or no, we needed to get 22,000 people to return a ballot paper before we could do anything. And they’re looking at bringing in minimum service requirements as well, and I’m not sure how that’s going to work, but I can see exactly what’s going to happen. The lead offices reaching individual companies will have to tell workers that you are going to have to go into work, otherwise the trade union’s going to get taken to court.
I certainly will not do that. I would rather go to court and go to prison myself than make people cross picket lines, because it’s unacceptable, and we can’t do that. We can’t do that. It’s absolutely disgraceful.
It’s almost like going back to the early 1920s when people used to line up on a wall and the owners of the businesses would go, right. I’ll have you boy, you boy, and you boy, to come into work today. And the rest of you all aren’t going to eat for the rest of the week. And that’s what it’s going to be like. Some of the discussions that we’ve had with our general secretary and the other offices within the union, they want to close every single ticket office in the whole of the UK. The rail network in the UK will be an inaccessible, closed railway. Disabled people aren’t going to be able to use the trains. People aren’t going to be able to get tickets at the right prices.
Where I live, I live probably about 150 miles away from London, it costs me £250 to get to London and back on the train. So, that’s three hours each way, and it costs me £250. It’s an absolute ripoff, the railway network in the UK.
It’s quite interesting. It was almost like kids at Christmas when COVID came along for these train operating companies and the government, because it’s given them the opportunity to do everything they’ve ever dreamed of. They’ve wanted to rip everybody’s terms and conditions away for the past 20 years. They’ve got the absolute perfect opportunity now to try and do it and blame it on COVID. Well, I’m sorry, when national companies in the name of like FirstGroup, you have FirstGroup over in America that run the Greyhound buses and I think some rail as well, they paid out £268 million to its shareholders in its worst year ever. Now, to me, that’s not bad. That’s not doing bad, but they still want more off us. It’s almost like they make £10 million, but they want to make £10.1 million at the detriment to our members. And the RMT aren’t going to let that happen. We are not going to let that happen.
There’s a lot of talk about our government, and there’s a lot of talk about the RMT and other rail unions. And we’re almost like the last bastion of real trade unionism in this country, I think. We had the miners back in the ’80s, Margaret Thatcher smashed them. Well, she basically starved them back into work, and unfortunately closed all the mines. And we’re the only people left, really. There’s other trade unions coming along with us like the CWU that represent the mail workers, they’re coming along. There’s the teachers as well. But we felt as a trade union that we had to go first because our members couldn’t hang on anymore, because the cuts were coming and we had to fight back. And what we didn’t want to do was leave our members out on the lurch. We’re not going to do that. We’re not into that.
Clayton Clive: Like Gaz just touched on about the miners, I’ve been reading The Enemy Within by Seumas Milne, and I’ve put it off for years, reading it. And I thought, we’re in a national dispute, I should probably read The Enemy Within. And it immediately touches on how the attack on the NUM was purely a vendetta because of the power those workers had, and you can’t help but think the attacks on us are the same. They’re a vendetta. And it started in 2009, the McNulty Report, which was, I think, started by Gordon Brown’s Labour government. And I think that’s where some of these plans to attack us stemmed from, like closing every booking office. I think that stems from back then.
So, I think part of it is a grudge and a vendetta that the Conservative government still has, that we’re still kicking around and we still hold enough power to stop things, although the power we have to stop things is minute compared to the power the miners had in the grand scheme of things. And there’s not a chance we could persuade our [inaudible] constantly, continuously for a year.
All the lies about this being needed for money, like Gaz has touched on as well, our railway is an absolute racket and our system… That possibly is in the world. So, like Max touched on that in the US, companies can own the tracks and stuff like this. Whereas in the UK, a company called Network Rail owns the national railway infrastructure, and they’re owned by the state, and then train companies get given a franchise to operate a service, and that gets subsidized by the government. And then these companies that operate the service then rent the trains that they run their service with from massive companies like banks and stuff called rolling stock owning companies. And they just suck money out of the railway, continuously.
I have a friend called Tom, and he’s a rail academic. He works in Leeds, and he visits our picket lines, and he’s written a book that I should name drop, but I can’t remember its name. And he quoted an article from about 2012 or 2014 saying the added cost of privatization on British railway at that time added up to this absurd amount of [inaudible] that money to every worker that worked in the rail industry, it would be about £69,000 a year every year for every worker. And that’s money that could be invested in what we have. And instead what we’ve got is crumbling because there’s just this desire and need and ideological urge that the Conservative government has. I guess it’s their nature that they want to suck out as much profit as they can for their mates and big companies without a care in the world for what is left and what remains, and it won’t stop.
I touched on the driver-only dispute. They want to bring that back. They want to bring push and driver only. Where I was at Northern, the action stopped in 2019, but negotiations were still going on by the start of the pandemic and throughout the pandemic. Now we believe that the Conservative government wants the train companies to push driver only as well. And we’ve the safest railway in the world, I believe, the safest major railway bar… You can’t really count Luxembourg as a major railway. No disrespect to Luxembourg, but it’s not very big. The Conservative government wants to throw all this away just for the sake of profit and for their own ideology. And it’s got to this point now where we’ve got to stop them, and the only way to stop them is with this strike action that we’re taking. Because if we don’t stop them and if we don’t win, there won’t be anything left. There’ll be very few jobs, and it’ll all be very bare bones, and you’d be throwing away thousands and thousands of decent paying jobs just so these private operators can continue to live their parasitic lives, draining all the money from the rail industry, ripping off passengers and ripping off workers.
Cat Cray: I think if I can cast a wider net to what is the purpose of public transport and my personal view – I have a whiny dog in the background, sorry – My personal view is that it should be free at the point of access. I would imagine all governments in the world would disagree with me. But actually what we see, what public transport provides to our societies is absolutely fundamental. People who can get to doctor’s appointments, go out and get food, shopping. In London, actually, more people use buses than the tube. They’ll take two buses to get to the tube because it’s too expensive to pay rent on a house that lives near a tube. You’re priced out of the market.
So, the service that our members provide on public transport – We also have our maritime members. I don’t want to leave them out, but I’m speaking from my experience as a rail worker of 16 years – Is that we help people get from A to B. I do not believe they should be charged anything. I don’t think they should be charged a penny. And whether you are Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, they’re the three main parties in British politics, they all think there should be some form of money making out of it. They’re all as bad as each other, is what I’m trying to say.
I think what makes me proudest is that we’re all united. We’re all into different things. We’re all different kinds of activists. We have all had different life experiences, but we’re all united by the work that we do. That’s how we know each other. We live all different ways around the country, but we help and we reach out. Whether that’s drawing up picket line lists or someone doing some graphics here, or someone saying, can I – Thanks for the thumbs up, Gaz. Or, could you come and speak at my branch meeting? We work together.
London itself can be quite insular, but that also means we can be very organized. It means that’s a lot of workers working very close together. So we’re quite a small region with about 17 branches in it, but actually numbers-wise, we are significantly high. But we reach out to our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the country. The DOO dispute was hugely, hugely significant, so getting rid of people who are on the train providing safety critical assistance. I’m a health and safety rep. That’s where my interest and my passions are. And what we do is it literally can save lives. Nor do I think we should get too deep into hero worship, and I saved lives, and I did this. What I mean is we have the expertise and the knowledge and the training to make it as safe as possible.
So, that’s one of the things that’s also being attacked across the UK, is the quality of our training. So again, the opportunists within our midst, which are many – And capitalism is very opportunistic – Is wanting to move a lot of our training online. And that’s going to water down the quality of training that we have. But I think the thing that makes me most hopeful is that we’ve always been seen as the gritty trade union that comes out punching first. But I just think we’ve got the balls to do the right thing first and other people are, I hope, listening to the messages out there and getting on with it. On the London Underground, we’ve already taken three days of strike action. Our last day was taken in unity alongside the national strike, and I hope that we see that again.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell, yeah. No, I got chills thinking about it. I mean, solidarity is a beautiful thing. And it really is, I think as y’all are saying, the last bastion that we have before we fall into the fucking dystopian abyss and immiseration that the ruling class wants working people to live and labor in. I was just really struck by that, because it seems like such a consistent theme across what all of y’all are saying. And I think it’s something that we really believe in this show, and that I think really comes through in the workers that we talk to on this show.
Bernie Sanders famously called this a race to the bottom. That’s what we’re seeing. That is what we’re seeing fucking everywhere. Because the kinds of things that we’re talking about here on the railroads in the UK and the US, this is happening in healthcare, they are gutting healthcare. They are piling more patients onto fewer nurses and medical staff. They’re under-scheduling people to the point that after a pandemic, we are losing impossible numbers of healthcare workers. It’s happening in education, especially in public sector education. I’ve interviewed public sector teachers on this show and for The Real News who are screaming, we can’t retain staff because we’re getting paid like shit.
I mean, Eric Adams in New York just gutted the public school budget to please his charter school donors who backed his mayoral campaign. Jesus, as we speak, from the Trump administration over now to the Biden administration, they are gutting… I mean, Louis DeJoy is gutting the United States Postal Service in broad daylight. He is taking a shank to it. One of the most beloved public services in this country has been getting openly gutted in broad daylight for the past few years. And everyone knows what’s going on. DeJoy is tied to private shipping companies. It’s no secret what they are doing. But as Mel, Clayton, Gaz, and Cat all said, they are going to take as much as they possibly can unless someone stops them.
Clearly the “government oppositions” in the UK and the US aren’t necessarily going to do that, or at least that’s the sign that we’re getting. And so, as I think we say all the time on the show, it’s got to be us. We are all we’ve got. Working people standing together can move mountains and change history. And I think that is what we are seeing with our siblings over there in the UK who are taking a stand against this vampiric, society wrecking force that is sucking all the blood and all that’s good, all the public services, all the quality of life, all the ability to make a comfortable, dignified living, they’re sucking that out and stuffing it in the pockets of shareholders and CEOs and yada, yada, yada.
You guys see the trend here. Something needs to be done about it, and I think that’s where we should really take hope and inspiration from what rail workers in the UK are doing. But we also, as we say all the time on this show, we need to show solidarity. We need to show up for one another like they are doing for each other. And we need to make sure that they win. We can’t just jump excitedly from one labor struggle to the next without following up and making sure that working people actually win these struggles.
We have to see them through, we have to stay committed for the long haul, because that’s sure as hell what the people on the other side are doing. They are not stopping. They are not relenting, and they have a lot of help. I think one of the reasons that a lot of folks here in North America learned about the RMT strike was because, on social media, we were just seeing all these video clips of RMT general secretary Mick Lynch just bodying a bunch of corporate serving douchebag pundits on mainstream media who were trying to throw everything and the kitchen sink about how workers were asking for too much, it was workers and the unions who should be blamed for these disruptions in travel, all the union busting stuff that we’re very familiar with here in the United States.
And I think it was at least hopeful to see so many people pushing against that narrative, responding to the appearances, not just by Lynch, but by others, including some on this panel, who have really been messaging, I think effectively, and people have been responding to that. But again, you see how this whole apparatus, from the government side, the industry side, the media side, all work in tandem to push working people farther down. And so we keep slipping backwards in that race to the bottom. And so, collective worker power is how we push back. I think that’s something that we all need to support whether it’s here in the US, in the UK, or anywhere around the world. That fight is our fight, and that fight is the fight of a lifetime.
And so with that, I guess not to sermonize too much you guys, I’m just so moved by everything y’all are saying, but I don’t want to keep you too long on a Friday evening the day after Boris Johnson resigned, because you should all be out drinking and celebrating. But I wanted to ask, by way of rounding out, if we could talk a bit about where things are now, and you could take that in whatever way you want. Has the media narrative changed at all? Or what does, perhaps, Johnson’s departure mean for this, if anything? Where are the negotiations? And what can people listening to this do to show solidarity with you all and your coworkers across the UK?
Mel Mullings: I wanted to round up a few points. Some of it is where we are now, some of it is stuff that was left out from what I remember. I just wanted people to remember that anytime you get history, you have to really look back at what’s happened in the past. We’ve mentioned the miners’ strikes. You mentioned what the right-wing government does to working class people, and it’s another round of it now. So, historically, when there’s austerity, it causes a lot more racism, anti-immigration sentiment, Afro-phobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, it all goes up, and it makes the working class go on edge, because we go into self-preservation mode. So, it’s all a distraction.
This is why these fights that we’re having now are pulling people back together in the essence of making sure that people are understanding the other struggles that are going around in the background, because we need a political shift. People that don’t originate from the UK, that come into a system, sometimes can get lost in the system. You’re seeing a government that is really pushing hard to push through policies that are against migrants and immigrants. But then it becomes a situation where you’re either in or you’re out. And some people just want to be out of the system because they’re so frustrated by the fact that this government keeps getting voted in, that they’ve decided, I’m not going to give my vote to anything at all. And not giving a vote or not being political sometimes can have a detrimental effect.
And it’s not me [inaudible] anyone, it’s because I’ve actually been able to be more political as I’ve gone along and understood that when you’re faced with policies, politics shifts everything. Your local government or your local counselor can do a bit here and there, but the actual national government is what will move things. And all these austerity cuts, all these austerity policies and laws that are being put in, they can be put in just like that with a snap of a finger if a government really wants to. And unless we as working-class people come together and really pull together our struggle, industrial and global together, we’re literally left out in a situation we’re fighting, which we are doing now. But as you were mentioning a while ago, America has taken a while to get a national strike. We’re here now. We’re here, and look at the mess that is around us. The fact that Boris Johnson has had to resign.
And when you look at the things that he’s done over and over again. I had people telling me, why are you going out on protests? It’s going to make no difference. It makes a difference. Having your voice heard makes a difference. Protesting against things that are not right makes a difference. Being really hard on your demands, whether you are unionized or whether it’s in your local communities, being political about situations when you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons, it makes a difference.
And it’s really important that trade unions, like I said, we take these issues within the community as well and spread our solidarity. Because all of this stuff that’s going on now, it’s because we’ve all pulled together. Cat mentioned the fact that we’re all from different parts of the country. We have different backgrounds. We’re interested in different aspects of activism, but we’re all activists, we’re all in our union, and we’re all very strong in terms of being able to go out there and represent what our members actually want in different ways, but causing the same long-term goal, which is having our demands met.
I wanted to say that in terms of what happened over the pandemic, this is all an excuse to rush through cuts and use the pandemic as an excuse. We’re the ones that pay the price for it. In regards to salaries – I’m not going to go into salaries, but you’ve got working class members of staff who are on 40% tax, who pay 40% tax. We are contributing to our societies. We’re contributing to our country. And yet still we’re villainized in the media.
I do want to give a shout out to the leadership. I’m not always a fan, but I do want to give a shout out to the leadership of my union, because what’s happened is the way that we are… Because working class people are not stupid. We’re not dumb. We’re not crazy. Sometimes we can be. But what I’m saying is if you even go and speak to… My grandma’s 80 years old. If you have a conversation with her, she will tell you all the issues that were going on back in the day. So, people might think that working-class people don’t have a clue about what’s going on. It’s not true. We’re very political, we’re very active. We’re very militant, and we’re very on with what is going on. It’s because we’ve had a longstanding bad relationship with the media that we haven’t been heard for a very long time. They put the pictures out there that make us look crazy, or they put the headlines out there that make us look like we’re horrible people, or we’re just the money grabbers, et cetera, et cetera.
So, the tide in terms of the media, it has changed. And I do want a big up Cat because she always puts out our really nice little posters out there in terms of our messages that go out there. She’s always very in tune with asking, is this word incorrect? Is the way it’s put out there correct? I love her for that, because sometimes we do get it wrong. And that’s what I wanted to say about our leadership. Sometimes they put out a message out there, and it’s gone out, and you’re thinking, oh my God, that’s not the right way to put it. And we can pull together, and actually as members put that message out there correctly, and make sure that people understand that we’re on this thing, we’re here. We’re ready to fight. We’re ready to get what we deserve and we’re upbeat about it.
I’ve never been this upbeat about a set of strikes for a long time now. And that’s because everything is so difficult nowadays in regards to the anti-trade union laws, all the stuff that’s going on in the background. So, I’m really pleased with how things are going. We’re going to have more strikes. I know we are, because nothing much has changed in terms of what the government is planning to do. And the cloak and dagger movements that the mayor’s office are using to say, we want to negotiate, but we can’t negotiate. Who is actually in charge here? We need to know who’s in charge. We want to speak to who is in charge so that we can get what we need to get out of this situation and move forward in a positive way.
Gaz Jackson: So, throughout the national dispute, our membership has grown. That means more people in workplaces that we have members have decided to join the fight. I think that’s important because we need everybody that works on the rail network to join this dispute, because it matters to everybody. We initially balloted 41,137 members. And I think we ended up, by the time all the ballots were sent out and counted, we had over 43,000. So we gained 1800 members within a four week period just because people felt that strongly, and they wanted to be in an organized, fighting trade union.
I’m really, really proud of the RMT and its members, every single one of us that have been on strike, not even just now. In the past, people needed to remember that jobs are only there. You’re just a caretaker of that job, because what you should be doing is leaving that job in a better place than where you found it, and that’s really important.
People need to understand it as well. We talk about pensions. That’s only deferred pay for when you retire. That’s so you’re able to retire and live comfortably. Well, some of the companies want to absolutely decimate people’s pension schemes, and we can’t allow that. You’re owed that money.
Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InTheseTimes.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.