"If anyone has held the British public to ransom on the railways, it is not the RMT. It is the shareholders who have been raking in profits for decades"Roger Blackwell @ Flickr

The Conservatives, with or without Boris Johnson, have felt the pressure of labour organising this summer, and are set on reclaiming the initiative. Even while the cost-of-living crisis exacerbates over ten years of stagnant wages under Conservative leadership, the party is pushing to dismantle long-standing legal protections of workers’ right to strike.

A Statutory Instrument tabled on Monday (27/06) will enable agencies to provide employers with temporary strike-breaking workers. The proposed amendment alters the 2003 Conduct Regulations in UK labour law and would severely restrict employees’ ability to collectively bargain. State action against unions has been framed by the Government as necessary to protect the economy and the public from disruption. However, in truth, the planned reforms have nothing to do with these considerations. Instead, they are the logical outcome of a decades-long project of British government policy: using the state to redistribute wealth from the public into the hands of the few. By definition, collective bargaining power resists this looting of society. For that, it has to go.

Railways, which have been at the centre of industrial action this summer, are as good an illustration of these dynamics as any. By mobilising Britain’s largest rail strike in thirty years, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) precipitated the wave of organising that has spread to sectors as far ranging as mail, airways, barristers, and broadband. Government reaction has targeted the RMT, depicting strikes as ‘holding the country to ransom’ and in opposition to the interests of the public.

“If anyone has held the public to ransom, it is not the RMT. It’s the shareholders who have been raking in profits for decades”

But the history of this country’s railways tells a different story. Given the debacle of privatisation, for which the British public is still suffering the consequences, claims by this Government to act in the interest of the average voter are deeply cynical. Since Major’s Conservative Government established the Railways Act in 1993, a complex network of private companies has overhauled a system formerly run by the state. Private Train Operating Companies (TOCs) provide rail services, using trains rented from private Rolling Stock Companies (ROSCOs). A single company known as ‘Railtrack’, until being reorganised under New Labour as ‘Network Rail’, has managed infrastructure, with TOCs paying fees for track access.

For almost three decades, this system has funnelled money from the British public to rich private asset holders. In the 1990s, this happened directly through public subsidies lowering ‘financial barriers’ to TOCs’ market entry. After restructuring under New Labour in 2002, this continued indirectly via public funding of Network Rail, which then offered TOCs artificially cheap track access fees. In this fashion, TOCs received £1.9 billion of public funds annually between 1995-2001, with government support for the railways rising to reach £4.7 billion/annum between 2003-2013, inflation-adjusted.

The franchising system also functioned to guarantee private profits. As Train Operating Companies are ‘Special Purpose Vehicles’, they are legally ‘ring-fenced’, isolating their parent companies from financial risk. As a result, TOCs have been able to distribute massive dividends to parent company shareholders, before declaring franchises a failure when required to pay premiums in return for state support. Between 2012-2018, private train companies paid out over £1 billion to shareholders. While wealthy shareholders have made fortunes, the taxpayer has borne the costs of franchise failure.

“The ability to collectively bargain is a crucial step on the road to a fairer and more equitable society”

If anyone has held the British public to ransom on the railways, it is not the RMT. It is the shareholders who have been raking in profits for decades and the political parties who have used the levers of state power to aid this process. Beyond wasting taxpayer money, service quality has been sacrificed at the altar of shoring up dividends. Passengers have been price-gouged with rail fares increasing substantially faster than wages and inflation. On top of the decimation of affordable travel, passenger safety has been compromised. RMT strike action last month was partially provoked by Network Rail plans to cut 2,500 maintenance jobs. Downsizing has been encouraged by Government-led initiative since 2019, with the Department for Transport now targeting ‘efficiencies’ of up to £4 billion. This would amount to a 34% reduction in maintenance hours. In this sense, union strikes are a struggle for the safety of the general public just as much as they are for decent wages. The strikes are fighting to prevent frequent disasters like those seen in the early privatisation years, when institutional separation of train and track, fragmentation of responsibilities, and cost-cutting practices led to repeated fatal crashes.


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While Johnson may be on his way out, proposed legislative changes under his premiership are part of a long and concerted push by the Conservatives to cripple labour power in this country. This was the case before Boris Johnson led the party. Similar attempts were made under Cameron’s government in 2015. And it will be the case after it. We are in danger of losing legal protections of the right to strike which have been in place since the 1970s, regulations that were not even repealed under the ravages of Britain’s neoliberal era. As shown by the railways, the history of which is so intertwined with the history of this nation, strikes are more than justified in a country which prioritises the profits of the few above all else. Strong unions and the ability to collectively bargain are crucial steps on the road to a fairer and more equitable society. They must be defended.