Strike force: why railway unions hit harder than the rest

Stopped in its tracks. Nicholas Hair/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Up to 25,000 Network Rail workers are set to take 24-hour strike action from 5pm on Monday May 25, a public holiday. This would not only be the first national rail strike for 20 years, but also the first national strike under the newly elected Conservative government. The dispute over pay and job security – embraced by the RMT, TSSA and Unite unions – could also involve a 48-hour refusal from midnight on Sunday to work overtime, additional hours, extended shifts, or to undertake callouts.

In the wake of marathon talks involving the conciliation service Acas, and a legal challenge by Network Rail over alleged TSSA ballot “defects”, it is possible the industrial action could be called off. But if not it will have a massive impact on millions of passengers commuting to work on Tuesday morning, as well as disrupting freight distribution.

The threatened strike comes in the wake of the Conservatives’ election pledge to dramatically tighten up industrial action laws. The party proposes that for action to be taken, there should be a minimum of 50% participation by union members in the ballot. And unions of “core” public services would need at least 40% of all those members eligible to vote, to vote in favour of industrial action.

This legislation is likely to have a devastating effect on the ability of many unions to take lawful industrial action. Yet ironically, in this dispute, the majority RMT vote outstripped both thresholds, with an 80% majority for strike action on a 60% turnout, meaning that 48% of those eligible to vote, voted in favour.

The response of UK trade unions to the global financial crisis and government austerity measures has so far been rather muted, compared with the wave of general strikes that has swept across Europe since 2009. Despite occasional large-scale, one-day, public-sector strikes, activity has declined to its lowest-ever levels.

This trend is accompanied by the steepest-ever sustained decline in union membership and a substantial fall in collective bargaining. The decline of the unions has been compounded by dramatic changes in the structure of employment and the composition of the labour force, with part-time flexible work and zero hours contracts in the private services industries much more common. As it stands the prospects for union renewal look bleak.

Militancy has worked for RMT

Of course, there are exceptions to this general picture. The most notable of these is the RMT: over the past 10 years the RMT’s “brand image” has essentially been that of a striking union, with literally dozens of strikes affecting the London Underground and the national railway network. Almost every single one of the union’s industrial action ballots has returned overwhelming majorities – although not always at a level that would meet the Conservative government’s new thresholds.

Many commentators have dismissed the RMT’s militant trade union model as being outmoded, destructive and self-defeating in the 21st-century world of transformed work and employment relations. But through the threat and use of strike action, the RMT has been able to force bargaining concessions from employers, resulting in both the delivery and defence of real improvements to their members’ pay and conditions of work. Of course, whether this will apply in the case of the current dispute with Network Rail – a central government body – remains to be seen.

Likewise, the RMT has been able to grow its union membership within a context of declining membership for many other unions. Indeed, there is evidence of a direct relationship between union militancy, effectiveness in delivering collective bargaining gains, membership growth and the development of relatively vibrant forms of union organisation and representation. In contrast, the more accommodating forms of unionism have often proved to be less successful.

Bargaining power

The strategic importance of the transport industry has placed the RMT and its members in an unusually strong bargaining position. Both the railway and underground systems are vulnerable to strike action, because their tightly integrated service networks which are not easy to substitute with other means of transport. This vulnerability means that any strike – or even the threat of a strike – can have a much greater and more immediate impact than in many other industrial sectors.

The large, predominantly manual workforce of the railway sector means that there is a strong sense of occupational identity and relatively high union membership throughout the industry. These factors also help to create a favourable environment for RMT members to engage in strike activity. This stands in contrast to the more subdued response in many other industries, where unions find themselves without such bargaining strength.

Nonetheless, despite the fact even large-scale public sector strikes by teachers, firefighters, civil servants and others do not directly affect employers, the economy or government to anything like the same degree, they can still potentially have a significant disruptive impact. When strongly supported by other groups in society and mass campaigns, they can have political influence which can potentially force governments to make U-turns, as was the case with massive public sector strikes over pensions reform in 2011.