Leading Article: Mr Knapp should talk

Click to follow
TODAY Jimmy Knapp, the leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, should be a worried man. Not being dim, he is almost certainly very worried indeed. Tomorrow the railway signallers' dispute enters its 11th week with another one-day strike and threats of more stoppages. A solution seems as remote as ever. Britain's railways have lost at least pounds 100m in revenue; Sir Bob Reid, British Rail's chairman, talks of the destruction of an entire transportation system; Railtrack, the employer, will not budge; the Government seems content to let the dispute run. Mr Knapp, publicly at least, puts his faith in the justice of his members' case, some late and ambiguous support from the parliamentary opposition, and public sympathy as demonstrated in opinion polls. The last two are fickle allies, and the hard truth about all three is that they do not win industrial disputes.

This newspaper has argued the signallers' case before - they do an important job, they deserve to be rewarded, the difference between their pay and that of less vital and skilled railway workers needs to be restored and respected. But in the end industrial action is, like politics, the art of the possible. Success depends on timing, on gauging your opponent's strengths and weaknesses, and (above all) on knowing that tricky, terrible point on the industrial-relations barometer when to push on regardless means that you are playing into your opponent's hands. Arthur Scargill was blind to this point during the miners' strike 10 years ago, as were the print-workers two years later when Rupert Murdoch moved his newspapers to Wapping. Strikes suited the long-term interests of the employer in both cases and caused near-terminal damage to the trade unions involved. They failed to understand that a combination of industrial, social and political change had transformed the old battlegrounds. They were in trenches, defending the Maginot line, and being outflanked by tanks.

The current railway strikes are often characterised as a 'typical old-fashioned industrial dispute', partly because Mr Knapp (however likeable and reasonable) looks and sounds like a trade unionist from a previous generation, but mainly because they concern the buying-out of old and complicated working practices and payments which sometimes mean that the basic wage is a minor component of take-home pay. That, however, is a one- sided characterisation. The management side - Bob Horton, the Railtrack chairman, and behind him the Department of Transport - may be playing in the kind of industrial dispute that was newly fashioned in the 1980s, one that does not intend to bring two sides together but to push one out of the game altogether. It is difficult to be certain. It may not be (to recall Wapping) that Mr Horton has established a secret bunker in middle England where hundreds of the unemployed are playing with model trains and learning to be signalmen and women. It may be (to recall the pit strike) that Mr Horton and the Government know that Britain can survive without railways, or at least the railway system at its present extent. Mr Knapp may be overestimating his members' ability to damage the economy. The signallers' strike might seem to deliver a blow to the Government's privatisation plans. But a leaner industry with a broken union would be far more attractive to private investment: see, once again, the pit strike.

These are the long-term dangers to Mr Knapp and his men; what supporters of the signallers tend to call 'the hidden agenda'. But even in the short term, the signs look bleak for the strikers. True, the Government is unpopular and the public may tend to blame it; true also that Mr Horton's arrogance (quote: 'Because I am blessed with my good brain I tend to get the right answer quicker and more often than most people') makes him a poor salesman for Railtrack's case. Mr Horton, however, scored a tactical victory over Mr Knapp when the latter spurned his invitation to sit down and talk without conditions, no matter that Mr Knapp may have been right when he suspected that conditions would quickly emerge. Now, as autumn approaches, other allies are gathering at Mr Horton's side. The first is commuting opinion, which will not be quite so carefree as the summer recedes. The second is Railtrack's increasing ability to run trains; this week it estimates a 40 per cent service - discount up to 10 per cent as gung-ho exaggeration and even then the figure is far higher than when the strikes began in June. The third is the unity of the signallers, which may begin to break under the threat of personal contracts and the imminence of new pension arrangements. These begin when the British Rail pension fund is divided at the end of next month, and they will reflect basic pay at that time. As the main thrust of Railtrack's proposals is to cut out overtime and extra payments and increase the basic rate, the difference in pensions is not negligible. Many signallers, particularly those over 50, will be tempted to press for a settlement. Some may return to work. There may be angry scenes that, thanks to union solidarity, we have not so far witnessed; and that will be meat and drink to the Government and the media.

Only two courses seem open to Mr Knapp. He could enthusiastically support the faint but growing calls for the dispute to be referred to independent arbitration: three wise men or women empanelled, both sides heard, industrial action suspended, good old Mr Solomon Binding dusted down to deliver a verdict that both sides will accept in advance. This was how the last national rail strike was resolved in 1989 (by the now abolished Railway Staffs Arbitration Tribunal) and it has an even greater virtue now in a dispute where the two sides have never properly negotiated.

Mr Horton and his government backers, however, are unlikely to submit to this proposal. Managements like to manage these days. Independent arbitration might damage Railtrack's machismo. Mr Knapp, therefore, may have only one course - to get Mr Horton to renew his offer of talks and to accept it. The railway system, as well as a face or two, needs to be saved.

(Photograph omitted)