The RMT and Aslef joint national rail strike on 15 September offers a glimpse of the kind of resistance we will need to defend public services and workers against Tory cuts
The co-ordinated joint national rail strike action between Aslef and RMT on Thursday 15 September marks a major step in the right direction of the struggle.
On Wednesday this week, the Aslef Executive Committee announced strike action across twelve Train Operating Companies (TOCs): Chiltern Railways, Northern, TransPennine Express, Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains, LNER, London Overground and Southeastern, and West Midlands Trains.
On Thursday, the RMT Executive announced 40,000 members would strike at Network Rail and across 14 TOCs. There will be an effective total shutdown of the national network.
RMT also announced an additional national strike date for Saturday 17 September while the TSSA has called its members out on a 24-hour strike between September 26 to 27, at nine TOCs including Avanti West Coast, c2c, CrossCountry, East Midlands Railway, Great Western Railway, LNER and Southeastern as well as Network Rail General Grades (Bands 5-8) and Controllers.
That said, just as the RMT strike action in June shifted the entire tempo of the struggle throughout this summer, the strike action on 15 September – the day after the TUC conference – could act as an accelerant in mobilising the entire trade union movement and the wider working class through the next phase of the struggle amid a deepening cost-of-living crisis.
London-wide transport austerity
The day before the rail union executives met, the TfL Board gathered at a “pivotal moment” to accept, in secret, the Tory government’s funding proposals. The settlement lasting until March 2024 contained in Grant Shapps’ letter to the London Mayor is for all intents and purposes a London-wide transport austerity package.
Over and above the deliberate underfunding of the capital’s transport during Boris Johnson’s reign as London Mayor, the Tories are now using the pandemic – the heart of the funding crisis when the capital’s transport system, uniquely left reliant on passenger fares, witnessed ridership drop to historic low levels – to make the workforce pay for the crisis while punishing the London working class as a whole.
In essence (the fantasy of driverless trains aside), the package contains three key areas of inevitable industrial conflict with the unions:
Pensions: the settlement requires TfL to cut £100m a year and follow three steps to meet this condition:
1By September 13 2022, TfL must provide views on Brendan Barber’s Final Report into our pensions (arising from a condition of previous deals) and outline steps for moving “TfL’s Pension Fund into a long-term, financially sustainable position”;
2By 30 September 2022, TfL must shortlist two categories for further consideration (which TfL says they will submit alongside a “do nothing” option;
3By 31 January 2023, TfL must set out their preferred course of action and an implementation plan with consultation with the unions by 1 May 2023.
It is likely the rail unions will await the outcome of step 2 before announcing further industrial action on London Underground.
Pay: TfL must continue to follow public sector pay policy.
The rail unions will not accept any government public sector pay freeze/pay cut and will submit their pay claims predicated upon an RPI-linked deal. This will blow up.
Savage cuts: The deal leaves a funding gap of £740m with TfL left to find further savings of £90m in 2022/23 and £140m in 2023/24 over and above the £730m per annum recurring savings programme as part of previous funding conditions.
These cuts will involve jobs as well as attacks on our terms and conditions. You know where that’s heading.
But the attacks are broader than the immediate workforce. The London working class will face cuts to bus and other services, increases in fares, punitive attacks on benefits such as free travel for under 16’s and those aged 60-65 as well as a deterioration of the quality of the very air we breathe as the deal does not permit government money to be used for the introduction of the London-wide Ultra Low Emission Zone. In the age of an intensifying climate crisis – when fully accessible systems of public transport are essential to curtail carbon emissions – these cuts are an act of vandalism.
Even Sadiq Khan had to admit that “this deal is far from ideal”. The Transport Commissioner said the deal “helps us avoid large-scale cuts to services” while admitting “The support offered by Government left an unfunded gap in our budget, which we have been working hard to identify how we will fill”.
The hugely successful RMT rally this week showed just what's possible in galvanising and building resistance.
While the government has prepared its timetable of attacks on London’s working class, where exactly is the timetable of resistance to those attacks?
The London Mayor could have chosen to be the present-day George Lansbury who chose to side with those who elected him and led the great revolt known as Poplarism in the early 1920s in defence of the poor. Instead, the London Mayor has opted to act as the present-day Herbert Morrison who opposed Lansbury and prioritised Labour’s capacity for ‘efficient governance’, balancing the books and punishing the poor in line with Tory (and Liberal) directives.
The London Mayor could have held a capital-wide meeting and revealed the Tories programme of attacks. The London Mayor could have called on trade unions, campaign groups and communities to gather at every Town Hall in every London Borough and helped forge an electric capital-wide response of resistance to the Tory attacks.
Instead, the London Mayor and the TfL Board have signed up to a Tory austerity package without any consultation with the workers who provide the transport services and without any consultation with the workers who use the transport services. The London Mayor and TfL have opted to enforce Tory cuts.
The Mayor says the only other option was for TfL to “hand over the keys” to the DfT. But there was also the option of spearheading mass resistance. Sure, the DfT could have held the keys but we could have busted down the door!
The London Mayor says “the good news is that we have managed to win a number of key concessions” which really does make you wonder what was in the original offer! But we won’t know because the talks have been held in secret. That’s secret talks between the government and TfL about our jobs, our pay, our terms and conditions, our pensions, our services, our (public) transport. Whatever happened to the notions of transparency and accountability? Indeed, whatever happened to the notion of democracy?
Strikes and resistance remain absolutely necessary. But it will be down to us - trade unionists, campaign groups and communities - to unite our struggles and organise and co-ordinate the broadest resistance possible. The co-ordinated Aslef and RMT national rail strike on 15 September will offer a glimpse of our power and the measures we’ll need to take and escalate in order to win.
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Unjum Mirza is a driver on the London Underground. He is on the Editorial Board of Tunnel Vision, the rank and file bulletin, and is an Aslef union branch chair.
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- The next round of rail strikes: time to tear the Tories apart
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