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Readying our movement for the fight of our lives

President-elect of the National Union of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers ALEX GORDON on why workers face the struggle of a generation

AS Boris Johnson’s crony regime descends into a vortex of chaotic self-destruction, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has issued a warning to transport workers that the Tory government is using the Covid crisis as a smokescreen to launch a multifaceted attack on working people. 

On successive weekends before Christmas, RMT train drivers employed by London Underground (LU) defended their collective agreements and working arrangements by taking strike action to protect their work-life balance. 

Our members across LU will soon be voting to defend their pension scheme from a smash-and-grab raid by the London mayor at the behest of the Treasury. 

Elsewhere, railway cleaners working for contractor Churchills across London and south-east England are preparing to ballot for strike action to raise pay to £15 an hour and win contractual sick pay. 

By contrast, Johnson’s cabinet of C-listers wants to re-establish capitalist growth by driving down living standards, lowering our expectations and turning workers against each other. 

While a Tory government oversees a massacre of small- and medium-sized businesses and boosts the political power and market share of big business, it is making a bonfire of democratic rights, as seen in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and Nationality and Borders Bill. 

A drive towards capitalist monopolisation lies behind the grand-sounding infrastructure projects (supposedly aimed at “levelling up”) and a power grab by central government over democratic powers. Welcome to the new Tory authoritarianism. 

As a train driver and proud industrial trade unionist, I see this close up, articulated through another Tory soundbite, “Great British Railways.” 

In reality, this Great British Con-trick is aimed at rescuing big business privateers who profited massively from the failure of rail privatisation. 

RMT estimates that rail privatisation sucked £3.2 billion in dividends alone out of the rail industry since in 1995 — and that’s just through passenger train operating companies. 

Fat-cat rentiers, known as rolling stock companies (ROSCOs) leasing trains to train operators are also laughing all the way to the bank, which is handy for them, because many of them are banks. 

To a great extent, Johnson’s “Great British Railways” (GBR) is simply a rearrangement of the pieces of a machine aimed at turning passenger fares and taxes into rentier profits. 

However, it differs from the previous catalogue of rail privatisation failure in one respect. In Johnson’s latest version, the price will be paid not only in higher fares and continued theft of public money, but primarily through wholesale destruction of rail workers’ pensions, pay, terms and conditions. 

Rail workers, whose pay has been frozen since 2020, now face a cost of living increase in excess of 10 per cent. GBR has a mandate to reduce pay permanently, while train operators have been told to cut back “outdated working practices” such as staffing trains, stations and ticket offices. 

Network Rail is defaulting to the asset-stripping approach that characterised its predecessor, Railtrack Plc when shareholders drove our rail infrastructure to the point of destruction, leading to a series of tragic and scandalous rail accidents at Hatfield and Potters Bar. 

Once again, rail infrastructure maintenance budgets are under attack and that means thousands of jobs at risk. 

RMT members employed in the maritime sector have experienced this approach for years. Seafarers work in an almost totally deregulated employment context that sees the very worst employment practices in the search for profits. 

Treatment of workers in our shipping lanes and on UK-flagged vessels should be a national and international scandal. 

In the current crisis, P&O Ferries has cut seafarers’ jobs and axed routes while a competitor, Irish Ferries, which doesn’t even recognise trade unions, takes up its slots. 

With a government seeking to expand “freeports” and facilitate deregulated, offshore work, employers are hell-bent on effecting a permanent levelling down of maritime and dock workers’ pay and conditions. 

There is no place for strong, independent trade unions in a race to the bottom. Having recognised that they couldn’t respond to the pandemic without us, the Tories want to settle accounts with us. 

This is why the whole trade union movement needs to focus on unity as an absolute imperative. My union is not a dysfunctional parish council of bickering personalities, despite the impression some may give. 

Real RMT is a proud, strong, growing union with a tradition of militant unity that is needed by the whole labour movement, now more than ever. 

Our movement also needs a strategic outlook. We fight for every job, but we must analyse the forces at work in our economy and society too. 

How do we recruit and organise the 76 per cent of workers in Britain who are not even members of a trade union? How do we revolutionise trade union organisation in the private sector where membership density has fallen below 13 per cent? 

These critically low levels of trade union engagement with the majority of workers is an indictment of trade union organising models. 

A deeper understanding of political economy, the reality of working-class experience of employment, exploitation, discrimination and structural oppression and of our own labour movement’s history is needed in order to develop new effective workplace strategies. 

We need a clear vision of the future we fight for to inspire new generations of trade union activists.  

A profound climate crisis shows the urgent need to move to a sustainable economy. Public transport’s future is at the centre of a shift to a sustainable economy. 

We need bus services planned around local needs. We need a publicly owned and democratically controlled railway. We need a major programme of electrification to move more freight from road to rail. 

We need strategic control of maritime passenger and freight services, which means taking ferry services out of the hands of cut-price, shareholder-value-oriented buccaneers. 

RMT members work on the front line of all these industries. Our policies reflect our members’ experience and expertise. We will proudly and forcefully project our vision to develop a political strategy that supports our united and militant industrial strategy. 

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