UK Strike: end of the beginning
Saturday, June 25 was the third and last of the one-day strikes called by the trades union RMT. After a huge ballot mandate, the union called out members from most passenger train operating companies in England, and from Network Rail staff across Great Britain. Readers in Northern Ireland may wonder what the fuss was about, but for the rest of the UK, it has been a week of disruption.
The industrial action has brought the grievances of the rail unions into sharp focus. Most people in the UK are now well briefed on the demands of the unions and on the response of the railway management. What has yet to converge is any semblance of agreement. The two sides seem at least as far apart as they were this time last week. The series of strikes are over … for now. It seems inevitable though that the strife is just beginning.
Discontent about to boil over
The rail strikes that have dominated the headlines for the past week have fallen of the front pages. The media agenda moves on relentlessly. Be assured though that news planners are already working on their coverage for the coming weeks.
Nothing has been resolved in the disputes that brought about the biggest stoppages on the railways of Britain for a generation. What has been brewing up into a summer of discontent seems inevitably about to boil over.
More severe legislation
Far from resolving any issues, the entrenched positions of both the unions and management have only become even more dug in. While public opinion of the strikes has become less supportive, those same public have become more impressed with the straight talking eloquence of Mick Lynch, the leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), the main protagonists on the staff side of the argument.
On the other hand, impatience with the disruption has not meant there has been any significant swing to the government’s position. Indeed, the refusal of the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, to become involved in talks has won him few friends. Instead, his approach of standing by the sidelines, threatening ever more severe legislation – designed to limit the lawful action available to trades unions – has been divisive. Many political observers have said it is no coincidence that the government lost two parliamentary seats in by-elections during the strike week.
All-out strike action
The legislative frame work means that the RMT is unable to call any further strikes for at least two weeks (the length of minimum advance notice required by law). However, they are not the only trades union currently at odds with the railways.
Although making progress, a long running dispute in Scotland has seen the drivers’ union ASLEF at loggerheads with the state-run ScotRail for several months. Passenger services in Scotland have been reduced to an ‘emergency’ timetable for several weeks. ASLEF though is not in all-out strike action. It is however asking its members to refuse overtime and rest day working. Their dispute has highlighted long-standing inadequate staffing levels.
No harmony to sing about
Another unresolved dispute involves RMT members on the London Underground. There, staff walked out last Tuesday, the same day as the first stoppage on the national network. Further action is planned for later this month. A third union, TSSA, which also represents members in transport industries, is currently balloting members over a pay and conditions grievance. Most commentators agree that their ballot will return a mandate for strike action. The possibility of concerted efforts between unions – by staggering action – will be particularly crippling.
As festival goers at Glastonbury, and Noel Gallagher concert fans at Glasgow struggled to get home after stadium-sized gigs, the effects of industrial action were only too clear. If there was one High Flying Birds song to make into an anthem for the weekend, it certainly wasn’t “It’s a Beautiful World”.