When's it going to end, Jimmy?: The leader of the striking signalworkers explains himself

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JIMMY KNAPP, the railmen's union leader, won a standing ovation at the Trades Union Congress in Blackpool last week for his defence of the signal workers' strike action, now moving into its 14th week.

Rail travellers face another 48-hour stoppage from tomorrow midnight and a further one-day walk-out next week; the union is set to continue the dispute indefinitely, no matter what the cost.

This resolve was emphasised by the RMT leader in an interview, as details began to emerge of the threat to the railway system from a dispute that has already cost the industry more than pounds 100m.

What the travelling public wants to know is, how long can this go on for?

Well, I don't see any immediate prospect of a resolution. Railtrack appears to be fixed on a course of action which it thinks will lead it towards breaking the resolve of those on strike. Among other approaches, this involves trying to get as many non-signallers into the signal-box as it possibly can. It has now been aided and abetted in that by the British Railways Board taking secondary action in support of Railtrack.

But isn't Railtrack having at least partial success in getting a service going again without your members?

There is a limit to that situation. Without signallers going back to work, Railtrack will not get much beyond where it is now. There isn't anybody going back to work. And these statistics it puts out are highly questionable. There is a lot of double-counting of trains, trains in and trains out.

There is one aspect that hasn't got a lot of attention in all this. Although Railtrack talks about 57 per cent of the network being open, my belief is that there is only 26 per cent of mileage being run.

And the public don't trust these services, their reliability and their safety. The services are not effective.

This is scarcely a cause for celebration though, is it? Are you not creating long-term problems for the railways? When the dispute is over, are we going to inherit a smaller network?

I don't think so, because I believe that when the current dispute is over, the long-term future of the railways will be very bright. The state of transport infrastructure will dictate, eventually, higher investment in railways and in public transport more generally.

There is no way that the rundown that we have seen in the last 13 years can go on. If we are going to be an industrialised country in the top league of nations, we are going to need an effective transport system.

Internationally, the Channel Tunnel provides enormous opportunities. What Railtrack should be doing instead of trying to beat the workforce into the ground is to make an investment, recognise what the signallers have done in terms of productivity and efficiency, and reward them for it, in the way that was being contemplated in the negotiations in June. Let them make that kind of investment and we can build a successful company on the back of that.

But the way this dispute has been handled from the beginning is threatening the railways' business. It is not anything that the union has done to precipitate this. I do sincerely believe that the long-term future is very bright.

Do you think there is a secondary agenda in all this? That the Government is going to spend as much of the taxpayers' money as it needs to break the RMT before the industry is privatised and sold off?

I think there is an element of that. Direct and blatant Government intervention initially was dictated by the view - mistaken as it turned out - that there was going to be a long- running dispute that would resurrect in the minds of the public all the images of trade unionism that might lead to an increase in Government popularity. That has not happened because it is a highly disciplined dispute. There are no unsavoury elements in it whatsoever and the public thoroughly understands the case of the signal workers. The Government has certainly shot itself in the foot because the effect of this dispute has been to put the prospect of privatisation of the passenger services, or indeed of Railtrack itself, back beyond the next general election. That puts the whole process in doubt.

How can you possibly win this dispute?

The public mood would not support the breaking up in a painful way of this dispute. And the resolve of our members is very strong and very steadfast. The circumstances are different to those of the miners' strike or the P & O dispute.

But public opinion did not deliver for the ambulance workers or the miners. Nor did the support of the TUC.

No, but we believe very substantially in our case. We are determined to prosecute this to a fair and negotiated settlement.

When might that be? How long do you think you can hold out?

The resolve of our members can take it some way. They are prepared to contemplate that. Until Railtrack abandons its present tactics and comes back to negotiations, there is no end in sight.

And if you can't negotiate, what's wrong with going to arbitration?

That will be a wee while yet. The arbitration question is one that I don't think is appropriate at this precise minute in time because we haven't even really started negotiating yet.

Is there not always a time in a dispute when a pragmatic union leader has to make a calculation: is it worth continuing?

We have not reached the point yet where that calculation needs to be made, or has to be made. The strikers are solid. There is a great resolve among our members. It is always as well to remind ourselves that this is a real, grassroots dispute. There was a postal ballot, 80 per cent return and a four and a half to one majority for strike action. We will continue until we get a change of heart from Railtrack.

And if it doesn't come, there will come a point when you will have to take that decision. You are the leader.

But that point is not here.

When does that point come?

It is not in sight yet. I mean, I know exactly what you are saying, that there is a moment in time when you know this is the best moment to settle. We have not reached that. Put that very clearly and very precisely.

How far off are we?

It is not in sight, not in sight.

Were you disappointed about the attitude of Tony Blair?

The one thing that Tony Blair and I agree about is that the Government ought to get out of the way and facilitate negotiations.

You say the Government should get out, but how can the Government abdicate its responsibilities as the employer in the public sector?

The Government has totally misread the situation. The proposals that were beginning to emerge on 6 June could have sat very comfortably inside the Government's pay policy. There was a 5.7 per cent offer there, there was a list of items that the signallers had already contributed to changes in working practices, there was a commitment to a joint working party to look at the future. It is my very firmly held view that if the Government had allowed that process to continue rather than destroy it recklessly, we could have emerged with a framework that would have sat even inside its pay policy.

I think the Government has moved for political reasons, not for the best interests of the travelling public.

Are you trying to destroy the Government's pay policy?

No I am not. That has never been at the bottom of this dispute. What I am trying to do is prosecute my members' case.

It's not as simple as that. All these things do have a political impact. The Government can't ignore that.

It's simple in the sense that it fits within its policy, even if you accept its policy - and I am opposed to it by the way. It will have to be changed eventually, otherwise there is going to be an outburst from workers in the public sector.

When the dispute is over, will there not be recriminations from the Government whether you win or not? De-recognition and all that kind of thing?

That is possible at any time in this kind of climate. What it can't do is destroy the railway workers' desire to have a union, to be part of a union.

I don't think given the nature of the industry and the job that needs to be done, that de- recognition would be in the best interests of either the workforce or the employer. I think the public want the railways and they want the railways to prosper. When this dispute is over, that feeling will still be there. And it is going to concentrate the Government's mind on how it runs the railways in the run- up to the general election.

You think the dispute is going to affect privatisation, that the industry will be in no shape to be sold off?

I have no doubt about that. I am quite certain.


Because of the losses that have been inflicted on the train operating companies - they will be in no shape to move into the private sector. There will be no private entrepreneur or indeed any group of managers in the industry who will be able to get it into shape before the next general election. That is the Government's own doing, and I will be very, very surprised if there are not serious concerns among the parliamentary Conservative Party about that. They may not be concerned about what happens to the signallers, but I am sure if you scratch the surface you will find concern in Conservative circles about what this is doing to rail privatisation.

There is no way that Railtrack itself will be in a position (to be privatised), because the damage that has been done already to morale and industrial relations is quite considerable. And the finances of the company itself will take a lot of rebuilding over a period of time. That will militate against Railtrack moving into the private sector before the next election.

Isn't the same damage going to lead to a smaller rail network, and fewer jobs?

I don't think the people of this country will stand for another Beeching era. I think there will be an outcry if there is any attempt to bring line closures back on to the agenda. They attempted that in the Eighties and were defeated. I think the reaction would be the same in the Nineties. It would be a highly dangerous political exercise for the Government to embark on.

But don't you sometimes wake up at night worrying that this dispute may all be a dreadful mistake?

I can honestly say an emphatic 'no' to that question.

(Photograph omitted)