Why are there train strikes?

As the UK’s railways brace for more train disruption over four November dates, we take a look at why the walkouts are happening

Lucy Thackray
Wednesday 02 November 2022 06:55 GMT
A crowded Kings Cross Station
A crowded Kings Cross Station (Getty Images)

Another series of train strikes are set to hit the UK between 5 and 10 November.

Four different unions, representing workers from Network Rail and 14 separate rail operators, are involved in the various walk-outs happening on 5, 7, 9 and 10 November.

The unions involved are the The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), the Aslef train drivers’ union, Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) and Unite.

It’s the latest in a wave of rail strikes voted on and called by UK transport unions, to protest against alleged low pay and unfair working conditions.

While each union has its own reasons and demands when it comes to the industrial action, three key elements are common to all the disputes:

  • Pay, which the unions say should take into account the current high inflation rate;
  • Jobs, and in particular the prospect of compulsory redundancies;
  • Working conditions – with the unions determined to extract a premium from any productivity improvements.

The Independent’s travel correspondent, Simon Calder, says: “The rail unions demand a decent pay rise for their members that keeps pace with inflation at a time when their industry is seeing a post-Covid collapse in revenue.

“The employers – and the government, which holds the pursestrings – say pay increases are affordable only if the railway can be run more efficiently, with outdated practices that constrain efficiency removed.

“Many long-standing agreements go back to the days of British Rail or even deeper into the past, and bear little resemblance to present needs. But the unions will agree productivity gains only if they trigger wage rises on top of routine increases.”

What have the unions said?

The RMT rail union has said it “will take strike action on 5, 7 and 9 of November in a dispute over jobs, conditions and pay”.

“The dispute remains live, and the union will continue its industrial campaign until we reach a negotiated settlement on job security, pay and working conditions,” explains its most recent statement.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch adds: “Our focus in this dispute is the rail employers who have yet to make an offer that will create the conditions for a negotiated settlement.

“I call upon the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to unshackle the rail industry so they can come to a settlement with RMT. We will vigorously pursue our industrial campaign until we achieve a deal.”

Commenting on the last round of strikes in October, Aslef’s general secretary, Mick Whelan, said: “We would much rather not be in this position. We don’t want to go on strike – withdrawing our labour, although a fundamental human right, is always a last resort for this trade union – but the train companies have been determined to force our hand.”

The TSSA union has said it “is seeking a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies, a pay rise which meets the cost-of-living crisis and no unagreed changes to terms and conditions”.

General secretary Manuel Cortes says: “We would far rather find a fair negotiated solution to this now long-running dispute, but we simply have no choice. A huge number of rail workers in our union, many of whom are longstanding members, had never been directly involved in an industrial dispute before this year.

“Across our railways, our members recently stepped up to the plate yet again and went above and beyond to meet unprecedented demand during the period of public mourning to provide additional services and keep the public safe, much like they did during the pandemic. They prove their worth time and time again and yet they are still undervalued.”

He added that he hopes “the new secretary of state for transport will see sense, unlike Grant Shapps, and use their powers to mandate a fair pay rise, reasonable terms and conditions and end this dispute”.

Unite London and Eastern say: “Transport for London (TfL) bosses must realise that they must put forward a genuine proposal to end this dispute. This dispute clearly proves that regardless of the political colours worn by the employer we will steadfastly support our members.”

What have the rail companies said?

Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, said: “A two-year 8 per cent deal, with discounted travel and a new extended job guarantee to January 2025, is on the table ready to be put to our staff.

“Unfortunately, the leadership of the RMT seem intent on more damaging strikes rather than giving their members a vote on our offer. Me and my team remain available for serious talks and continue to negotiate in good faith.

“Our sector has a £2bn hole in its budget with many fewer passengers using our services. That reality is not going to change anytime soon and a fair and affordable and improved deal is on the table, ready to be implemented if our people were only offered the opportunity.”

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train operators, rejects the union claims of profiteering, saying: “Since the end of franchising, the Government has paid train companies a fixed, performance-related fee to run services.

“That means it is the taxpayer who loses money every time the RMT leadership call a strike.

“Instead of repeatedly misrepresenting the industry’s financial position to further its own cause, we call on the RMT to recognise the very real financial challenges faced by the industry post-covid, which are being made worse by these strikes.”

Network Rail is a subsidiary of the DfT, and train operators are contracted by the department to run services. So ultimately ministers call the shots on pay and conditions.

Of the strikes affecting London’s Overground and Underground, on 10 November, a TfL spokesperson said: “We’re extremely disappointed that the RMT has announced strike action on the London Underground and Overground. We call on them to withdraw this action and continue to engage with us and Arrival Rail London, operator of the London Overground, to avoid disruption to our customers.

“On the London Underground dispute, there are no changes to TfL pensions as a result of this recent submission and no proposals for change. Securing a workable funding agreement with the government was absolutely essential to the future of London’s transport network and everyone who works at TfL.

“This recent submission to the government meets a requirement of the funding agreement. In developing these options, we have been clear that if any change has to be progressed then this would require appropriate consultation and further work before any decisions can be made.”

What has the government said?

The UK is on its third transport secretary in three months - the newly appointed Mark Harper, who was announced on Wednesday.

Mr Harper follows Anne-Marie Trevelyan into the role, who only served for seven weeks under Liz Truss as prime minister, and said in early October that “there was a deal to be done” with the transport unions.

Ms Trevelyan’s predecessor, Grant Shapps, who served as transport secretary from July 2019 to September 2022, was accused multiple times by rail industry figures of failing to resolve the dispute between employers and workers.

But in August Mr Shapps in turn accused union bosses of delaying the means to a resolution. “The deal that is on the table actually means largely no compulsory redundancies at all,” Shapps said of one offer. “If [the unions] are not prepared to put that deal to your membership we will never know whether members would accept it.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson told The Independent on Wednesday: “This is incredibly disappointing. Through no fault of their own, people will once again have their day to day lives disrupted and be unable to attend work, school or vital doctor’s appointments.

“Our railway is in desperate need of modernisation but all more strikes will do is take it back to the dark ages and push passengers further away.

“We urge union bosses to reconsider this divisive action and instead work with employers, not against them, to agree a new way forward.”

Will the strikes continue into winter 2022/23?

Ongoing strikes, potentially on a monthly basis, are likely until the unions and rail employers resolve the dispute.

In mid-October, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “I think there could be up to a million people on strike very, very soon. We could see multiple strikes this winter.”

Simon Calder says: “In effect, the unions believe that if they keep up the strikes, the government will eventually relent and give the ‘magic money tree’ a good shake. So they will keep going.

“But against a backdrop of impending public spending cuts, their optimism may be misplaced. How do wages in the rail industry compare with the national picture? Generally, they are good – significantly above average – though with some staff, such as cleaners, less well rewarded.

“The new secretary of state has the opportunity for a fresh start. But he still really has only two clear courses of action, neither of which he has much control over.

“One: impress upon the chancellor and prime minister the need to limit the economic damage rail strikes cause – as well as bolstering the impression abroad that the UK is utterly dysfunctional. And two: hope that the appetite for striking diminishes as inflation bites – though, of course, rising prices may strengthen rail workers’ determination to keep walking out until the government caves in.

“Longer term, Mr Harper may or may not choose to tackle head-on the need for comprehensive rail reform – which, to succeed, will need the buy-in of the unions.”

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