LEADING ARTICLE:Strike, and everyone loses

Click to follow
The Independent Online
This summer it looks as though rail commuters will once again find themselves stuck in traffic jams or forced to stay at home. The train drivers' union, Aslef, taking the baton from RMT, which organised last summer's signal workers' strikes, has called six one-day strikes to be held between now and September.

You can imagine what everyone will be saying: that the railways charge ever more for ever poorer services. Any support that rail workers may once have enjoyed will melt away like a penny lolly on a hot summer's day.

Aslef's case is that drivers deserve a share of British Rail's increased profits. In fact, the "profits" are paper ones. Most of last year's net operating surplus of pounds 362m reflected a single act of munificence: government subsidies have almost doubled, to pounds 1,748m in order to finance the once- and-for-all costs associated with privatisation. In any case, the BR surpluses are handed over to the Treasury to repay old debt.

The train drivers' case is further weakened by the fact that there has been little increase in productivity. In recent years, moreover, train drivers have done better than many other Britons: in three of the past five years they have enjoyed pay awards above the inflation rate. In such circumstances, Aslef is hardly likely to enjoy much public sympathy.

The stance of the rail unions epitomises their failure to live in the real world. Like Arthur Scargill in the early Eighties, they seem to think that they can continue to win pay awards and delay industrial change using the weapon of industrial action. Their strategy is mistaken because it will not win over rail users.

It may be that the unions hope to delay change in the industry until a Labour administration arrives. This has proved a futile strategy for other unions over the last decade, but now looks distinctly more promising. Tony Blair could find himself barely inside Downing Street before being besieged by the rail unions demanding that he turn the clock back.

To date, Labour has been ambivalent about the future of the railways. Last year Mr Blair pointedly refused to support the signal workers, and 69 per cent of the public agreed with him. On the other hand, the party opposes rail privatisation and demands even more subsidy for investment than last year's pounds 2bn for Railtrack and BR. Labour needs to do more than show that it will not cave in to the unions. It must offer a credible strategy for modernising the railways.

Whatever Labour's vision might be, it surely cannot include such features as a single national pay bargaining system, pay increases automatically above the rate of inflation and tolerating complete gridlock once a week every summer. These are the new realities that must be accepted. Until he makes his position clear, Mr Blair is at best encouraging delusions and at worst providing closet support for the rail unions.

The damage being done to the industry is clear. Last year's strikes lost BR 11 million passenger journeys and cost pounds 173m. A significant portion of the business lost has never returned. If the proposed strikes go ahead, we can expect a further haemorrhage. In that circumstance, there would be no winners, only losers.