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Workers' strike action is not just about pay, but saving the railway itself

SECRET plans to close every ticket office in England give the game away: the government’s “strategy” for rail is simply to degrade the service, making it less reliable and harder to use.

Like the Scottish government’s similar, if less extreme, attack on ticket offices north of the border, which is combined with a huge reduction in train services, this is evidence that looming industrial action on the railways is a vital act in defence of a transport network that ministers are happy to rip up.

As RMT leader Mick Lynch warned at Saturday’s huge trade union demonstration for a new deal: “This is the fight of our lives.” 

The threat of rail strikes has prompted a ferocious propaganda onslaught from the usual suspects, from red-baiting columns in the Daily Mail to misrepresentation in Parliament and the usual dishonest blather about “overpaid” rail workers spouted from all sides (including a Labour peer).

Actually, as RMT points out, most rail workers are paid between £25-30,000 a year, slightly below the national median wage (£31,285). 

Inflation is soaring above 11 per cent and its driver, as analysis commissioned by the Unite union revealed last week, is not workers’ pay but bosses’ profits: profit margins for Britain’s biggest listed companies were 73 per cent higher in 2021 than in 2019. Corporate profits rose 11.74 per cent just between October and March.

So ministers who claim that keeping pay down is about controlling inflation are lying. Keeping pay down is about shoring up profit for the richest, whose wealth has accumulated at an astonishing rate in recent years. 

The consequence is immiseration for millions of ordinary people as prices shoot up. Remember that the next time the so-called leader of the opposition tells us Labour is “backing business.” Business is coining it at our expense. Again, as Lynch had it on Saturday, Labour MPs must be asked the question: “Which side are you on?”

So yes, workers deserve a proper pay rise and yes, if employers and government are not offering one, workers should take industrial action to get it. Attempts to turn the public against rail workers must be fought. 

The same pressures face all of us, and the same demands for “pay restraint” are hitting nurses, teachers, drivers, telecoms and postal workers, shop workers and many more. Conversely, victory breeds victory: pay wins for one set of workers increase the pressure for pay rises elsewhere, especially in a labour market with high vacancies as at present and especially where trade unions can work together to drive up pay sector by sector.

But equally important when we make the case for supporting the rail strikes is emphasising what else is at stake besides pay.

A footloose elite sees the services this country depends on as nothing but cash seams to be mined till they give out. 

Operating companies owned by foreign firms — or states — and “investors” seeking to fill up offshore bank accounts have no particular interest in the sustainability or efficiency of the services they run. Once a resource has been exhausted, they can move on like locusts.

Thatcher’s chancellor Geoffrey Howe notoriously advised the “managed decline” of the city of Liverpool. 

Yet as the comms union CWU general secretary Dave Ward has observed, managed decline is the current ruling-class plan for the whole country. Innovative ideas and suggestions on redesigning services such as the Post Office to meet changing local needs have come from unions, not management, who have been content to take money out and watch the institution wither. 

That’s even truer of rail. When climate commitments impel investment in more services, more staff and cheaper travel, ministers in Westminster and Holyrood are pulling in the opposite direction. If they have their way, the race to the bottom will continue — for passengers and staff alike.

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