‘Should have worked harder at school’: Rail bosses enrage workers about to vote in strike ballot

Network Rail says regional communications director’s comments were ‘misconstrued’

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 26 April 2022 12:05 BST
Trains on UK railways now almost entirely state-owned – by foreign countries

Rail bosses have enraged workers about to take part in a national strike ballot, after telling them they “should have probably worked harder at school” if they wanted better pay.

Nicky Hughes, a director of communications at Network Rail, provoked anger from unions at the state-owned company just as 40,000 rail workers vote on whether to walk out over job cuts and salary freezes.

Network Rail said the director’s comments had been “misconstrued” but unions, who are balloting for strike action, seized on them and warned a rail walk-out could be the UK’s biggest ever.

“Yes, there are some people in our business who are on high salaries,” Ms Hughes, a communications director at the organisation, said in a post on the company’s internal social network defending top executive pay.

“We are a massive multibillion pound business, with complex finances, risks, governance, public and political scrutiny and we also have some of the UK’s biggest construction projects. Managing businesses like these are [sic] enormously complex and complicated... it’s certainly not a job I or many other people can do.

“That doesn’t mean senior managers and leaders are always right... far from it, but equally we should be fair and recognise that all businesses – public and private – compete for managers who have these skill and pay accordingly. It's a lesson to those of us who should have probably worked harder at school.”

Ms Hughes added that “the alternative” to such pay inequality “is socialism where you don’t have pay differences like this”, noting: “Sadly again, there's not much evidence of successful, fair and open socialist countries in the world who’ve managed to do this either.”

The exchange took place on Yammer, an internal social media platform for Network Rail employees, during a discussion about planned cuts – and screenshots of the post have been circulating widely among workers balloting for a strike.

The vote has been prompted by the organisation’s plans to cut 2,500 safety-critical maintenance jobs as part of a £2bn reduction in spending. Workers on rail operators, which are separate from infrastructure manager Network Rail, are also being balloted in light of pay freezes amid soaring inflation and changes to their terms and conditions. Voting opened on Tuesday.

In a follow-up post after receiving angry replies, the director, who oversees communications in the Wales and western region, apologised, telling colleagues she was “so so sorry” to have “caused such offence”, that she had intended her comments to refer to herself, and that she could “see this was a bad choice of words and not relevant to everyone”.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) general secretary Mick Lynch told The Independent: “The comments are a desperate and futile attempt by Network Rail to dissuade our railway members from voting in this upcoming strike ballot.

“Network Rail are trying to avoid the elephant in the room, which is that along with the government, they need to refinance the debt they have with bondholders, not try and cut jobs, conditions and compromise railway safety.

“The removal of 2,500 maintenance roles will have a devastating impact on our members livelihoods and will lead to stronger likelihood of serious accidents on the Network.

“RMT is always open for genuine negotiations with Network Rail and the train operating companies. But our members will not be emotionally blackmailed into accepting proposals that will do permanent damage to the long-term future of the railways in this country.”

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) rail union, described the post as “foolish” and said it “shows how desperately out of touch the company’s fat cats really are:.

He added: “It’s insulting to suggest that workers ‘should’ve worked harder in school’, rather than acknowledging the very real cost of living problems people suffer when their pay fails to keep up with inflation. These comments sound even more ludicrous when you consider that most of our members are skilled professional staff with many having been university educated.”

A Network Rail spokesperson said: “As can often be the case on social media platforms, these comments were misconstrued. The author was referring to her own experiences, not directing the comments at others. She later clarified this on the same thread and this was well received by colleagues.”

On the RMT ballot, Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s regional director, said: “Our railway has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, and even as passenger numbers start to recover, we know travel habits and passenger demand have changed and the industry has to change too. We cannot keep relying on government handouts, and so we must work together with train operators and our trades unions to save millions of pounds and deliver a more efficient railway.

“Our modernisation programme aims to build a sustainable future that delivers for passengers and creates better and safer jobs for our people. We would not consider any changes that would make the railway less safe. We are disappointed that the RMT has taken this decision and urge them again to work with us, not against us, as we build an affordable railway fit for the future.”

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