British railway workers speak from the picket line

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The World Socialist Website spoke with pickets at the Longsight Traincare Depot in Manchester on the first day of the nationwide resumption of rail strikes by Rail, Maritime, Transport members; Association of Transport and Employees; and Union of Trade Unions.

Rail picket at Longsight Station, Manchester, August 18, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

An engineer told our reporters that the dispute was not just about pay, but about the “decimation of terms and conditions”. Management “wants us to work three weekends out of four… 39 weeks of nights per year”. He said: “They go back 100 years and that infuriates me.”

A third-generation railroader, he said they were also looking for the pensions. “I am 37 years old. I’ll be honest, it’s a concern for me. I left school at 16 and have been working ever since. It’s not just your terms and conditions, your salary, they now want to put you in poverty when you retire. He warned: “We are going to see a lot of retirees die this winter.”

The picket explained that “this decimation is in 12, 13, 14 years”. He referred to Phase 2 BC in 2010, “a nationwide restructuring of the rail system. What they are asking for now, they were asking for then. This aimed at deskilling, with “versatile and cross-border work”.

With his years of experience, he underscored the importance of railway privatization saying: “Since Thatcher they have sold everything, the basic necessities. His wages had risen under privatization, “showing how much money they knew they were going to make”. The system was aimed only at “privateers”, because “the contracts are so lucrative that these tops will never lose money”.

He explained that strikers were attacked for not crossing borders, as if it were an “archaic unionized thing”. In fact, “every private company has carved out space”, which has had an impact on maintenance. In his own work he said, “literally, where there’s a block joint, you hold down that bit, we hold down that bit…nothing to do with archaic rules and regulations”, but everything to do with private profits.

He said companies were trying to cover up crumbling 65-70-year-old infrastructure with inappropriate technology — “putting an Elastoplast on an open wound” — while cutting scheduled maintenance tasks in half. “The only people who are going to lose are the people who get ripped off by rail fares, so everything is interconnected.”

It was clear that workers are blamed for the cost of living crisis. “They are now saying that inflation will increase because we are asking for a salary increase. Bullshit. Inflation has already increased. It will continue, he said, “unless we stand up, people will just get poorer and poorer.”

“They want a submissive society, people who are afraid to speak up for themselves, but I think it’s had the opposite effect,” he said. Expressing hope that “we have started a movement”, he said he would participate in a general strike because “it could eventually come to this”. He had read about the 1926 general strike and said, “We go back nearly 100 years, and it’s the same problem now.

WSWS reporters also spoke to pickets at Ashbury Rail Operating Center (ROC) in Manchester, part of Network Rail.

Striking railway workers on the picket line outside the Rail Operating Center at Ashbury station in Manchester on August 18, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

They explained the reasons for the strike as “cost of living issues, attacks on conditions. They are trying to cut jobs, which would make them dangerous. We go out weekly to check the trail. That’s what they’re trying to reduce.

Asked who was in charge of a skeleton flagging operation during the strike, one said: ‘There were near misses that should have been investigated, but I doubt that they were.” Managers “do not have the experience acquired over the years”.

Another picket explained the changes to the roles of maintenance workers and the attempts to fire ticketing staff: “They are trying to deskill the work. You wouldn’t get a carpenter to check your electrical fixtures or a plumber; you would get an electrician. This would mean that everyone should be able to do everything. Jack of all trades, master of nothing.

“Station staff are there to sell tickets, but also do a host of other things to help people.” The changes made by the employers were “all about the reductions rather than the value the role can have”.

Asked about the government’s anti-strike legislation and plans to use agency staff as strikebreakers, one noted: “We have the strictest anti-union laws in Europe”, but estimated: “New measures would galvanize people against them even more. It will come to the stage where we have nothing to lose.

“Now there is a workable route to be able to go on strike, but if there is no workable route, you will have wild walkouts. If it’s illegal anyway, might as well do it. Amazon warehouses have just come out, they have no choice.

“You cannot have temporary workers on the railways. I’m a dashboard clerk at the bottom of the pay scale, but it takes two or three weeks of training to do it. How can a contractor come in for two or three days of a strike, not to mention signaling or driving trains, is ridiculous.

In Bournemoutha South Western Rail guard with 15 years’ experience spoke to our reporters about driver-only train plans and massive layoffs at Network Rail under the Great British Railways government scheme: “By cutting frontline staff , you actually shut down people’s ability to travel as well as insecurity Number one is safety I was talking to a guy who works at Network Rail, and he said they wanted to move from a rolling maintenance schedule on a schedule as they go. In other words, “rather than find a problem and fix it, they’ll wait for a problem and then fix it… It’s going to be dangerous.”

Rail picket at Bournemouth Station on August 18, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

The guard told the WSWS, “We have a government that is determined to cut the workforce to cut costs. He continued: “In the future, we are going to end up with what essentially looks like a revolution: we are going to bring together all the unions, different political groups, the whole public sector and there is going to be an uprising. And I think the Conservatives are now on borrowed time.

Referring to other sections of the working class in struggle, the guard said: ‘There is going to be unified action’, referring to ‘bus drivers in London’ as well as ‘the post office… lawyers, teachers , NHS [National Health Service] workers, who have been treated very, very badly. I think such is the strength of sentiment and the fact that people won’t be able to put food on the table, you’re going to end up with a situation where everyone is going to come together out of necessity.

Inflation, he noted, “will be over 13% in January. Two-thirds of the population will be in fuel poverty. Once that starts to happen and it impacts people , there will be an uprising.

Mark Carter, a railroad worker and secretary of the local RMT branch, told the WSWS: “The bitter pill they are trying to force us to swallow is to force layoffs, changes to terms and conditions and also layoff tactics and rehiring within the ranks. They are looking to bring in more conductor-only trains and then rehire guards with an overall salary of around £10,000 less than they already are. They also want to close all ticket offices in the country. We think we’re going to end up with a railway envelope.

“What it really is is the McNulty report put into action. In the 1990s, the government of the day commissioned Sir Roy McNulty, who was something of a captain of industry, to find out why the railways in this country are not as efficient as those in other European countries.

“Most of the railways in other countries are one entity, they might have a bit of privatization within them, but they are one entity, whereas here they are completely fragmented.

“But Roy McNulty completely dismissed that and decided that the problem we have is that we don’t have enough privatization. So the McNulty report recommends driver-only operation, a massive reduction in staff, and it recommends modernization, which means replacing people with technology. And they used COVID as a smokescreen to bring that in.

Mark added: “It’s the DfT [Department of Transport] who drives this. They are the source of this conflict. I think they knew we would vote for the action given the sweeping changes they want to propose. They just want to face us, and I think it’s going to be a long fight.

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