Since Friday's 24-hour rail strike, British Rail has cut off a financial lifeline to the industry's biggest union, the RMT, by abolishing the system of deducting subscriptions automatically from pay. The 'check-off' arrangement was withdrawn by British Coal two weeks ago, and the National Union of Mineworkers is already having difficulty in persuading members to pay.
As a result, the subscriptions of nearly 100,000 workers have been put in jeopardy at a time when the two unions face severe financial problems. Some union officials believe that other employers are sure to use the tactic. If they do, up to one-third of the movement's income, covering two million workers, could be at risk.
Nalgo, the local-government union, has lost about a quarter of its members at the Conservative-controlled Wandsworth council, in south London, since the arrangement was abolished. Other councils are adopting the policy and some financial, print and construction companies have followed suit.
The RMT receives pounds 500,000 a month through check-off. Now union activists will have to devote valuable time and effort to collecting dues individually. While check-off was a relatively painless deduction from wages, workers often refuse to hand cash to union officials.
Unions feel employers are taking their lead from a Government bill which proposes tighter rules for check-off. Unions believe ministers 'have sown a seed' in employers' minds.
Check-off became popularabout 30 years ago, despite left-wingers' claims that workers were handing companies a potent weapon. The TUC estimates that about six million workers - 85 per cent of union members - pay subscriptions by this method.
The abandonment of check-off by British Rail is helping to force the RMT back to the negotiating table this week in an attempt to solve the dispute over redundancies which has led to two Friday strikes. A BR spokesman said yesterday that the union was desperate for negotiations because it was losing public support. The comment followed a letter on Friday from Sir Bob Reid, the BR chairman, which the union said provided the basis for negotiation.
BR management argued yesterday that there was nothing new in the letter, sent to John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman. The union was simply using it as a ploy to get back into talks.
The BR spokesman said: 'The union is clutching at straws because they know they're not getting anywhere. We're taking a very strong view of this. Their demands will not be met.'
He said the union should be aware that a third 24-hour stoppage would be extremely damaging, and that any remaining public support would evaporate. The RMT executive meets tomorrow, while the 16,000-strong train drivers' union, Aslef, is expected to resume negotiations tomorrow after management assurances over bargaining before privatisation.
An official of the 67,000-strong RMT said yesterday that BR was simply acting tough while extending an olive branch. Sir Bob's letter meant that both sides were 'inching towards a settlement', because it served to clarify points made in a letter to the union on Thursday, which came too late to stop the strike.
Sir Bob's letter said there were 'no plans for any compulsory redundancies' or for 'a major extension of the use of contractors in the area of track maintenance during the next couple of years'. That provided the basis for fresh negotiations, the RMT official said.
John Smith, the Labour leader, will give measured backing to the rail unions this week in a speech at the Scottish Trades Union Congress designed to reassure trade unionists of the strength of their links with the Opposition. In what will be his first comments on the dispute Mr Smith is expected to call for it to go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.Reuse content