United in joy: Six summers ago, this sentence summed up relations between the railway workers’ union RMT and the right wing of the Conservative Party. Their collective ambition that the UK should leave the European Union was to be realized after that famous 52-48 win.
Now, at the end of June 2022, the Brexit bond created in those halcyon days has dissolved. After members of the RMT voted eight-to-one for strikes over jobs, wages and working conditions, Network Rail workers and 13 train operators will stage 24-hour strikes on June 21, 23 and 25.
Walkouts by Network Rail workers alone will be enough to close at least half of Britain’s railways, with heavily reduced service on mainline routes by train companies operating with a depleted workforce.
Tory MPs say they are angry. Here’s a member of the Transport Select Committee speaking in Parliament on Wednesday: “This country is being brought to a standstill by Putin apologists.”
So says Chris Loder, who describes the RMT leadership as “Russian-sympathetic, militant communists who fund the Labor Party”.
Mr. Loder is himself a former railway worker who got his start in the region now covered by the South Western Railway. This train operator tells passengers, “You are urged not to travel by train unless absolutely necessary.”
Surely there must be hope that the strikes could be averted? After all, the union said on Saturday: “The RMT remains available for talks to resolve this dispute and ensure our transport system operates without disruption.”
However, with less than 48 hours until the first strike takes effect, the RMT knows that this claim is nonsense.
With time remaining, it would be difficult for the rail industry to offer a better service than what is already planned due to the need for pre-registration for rosters. So the damage is being done: to the travel plans of millions of passengers, to the companies that rely on rail travelers, and to rail’s reputation as a reliable alternative to the road.
The short-term drop in rail revenue plus wastage from planned works that can no longer be carried out amounts to £150m. That’s a lot of money to lose and works out at £1,200 per striker per day. The union believes that the financial damage to members’ interests can be recouped by taxpayers through their power.
I believe the RMT failed to read the space. While the government touts its faith in rail, its actions show the exact opposite: raising fares by the highest amount in nine years while reducing fuel taxes for drivers.
Ministers believe it will take more votes to lower the cost of driving than to reform train tickets in favor of train travellers. They also see the RMT action as a political gift and denounce next week’s strikes as “Labour rail strikes”. In turn, the failure of the opposition to stand up for passengers by calling the strikes for the disaster they will be – both as a short-term shock and to hasten the long-term decline – has only aided the government.
An industry weakened by the corona pandemic must be at the forefront and ready to modernize. Instead, Labor politicians are keeping a low profile as former Brexit allies exchange insults.
Members of the RMT have served well during the Covid crisis. They have every right to go on strike, and having chosen to do so, they understandably tried to cause maximum disruption lasting almost a week in exchange for three lost working days.
But over the next seven days, they are depriving the public of the right to safe and efficient transportation. Unlike the EU referendum, I’m not sure there will be a winning side. But the passengers are the losers either way.