Railway workers continue their fight for safety…
Rail union RMT has been prevented from calling thousands of signalling, maintenance and other workers out on the first national rail strike for a decade. Anti-trade union laws from the Thatcher era were used by Network Rail to prevent the action. Sister union TSSA, which was also calling some of its members out, called off its action as a result.
Both unions condemned Network Rail for rushing off to the courts instead of seeking a settlement to a dispute, which is about pay, jobs and safety. They defiantly stated that they would be re-balloting their members, and that Network Rail was therefore only delaying the inevitable.
There are numerous issues behind the disputes, but the one that is most deeply felt is the proposal by Network Rail to axe 1500 maintenance workers. This is in an industry which still nurses the scars of fatal derailments over the last decade at Hatfield, Potters Bar, and more recently, Grayrigg, all of which were down to the failures of Network Rail and contractors to adequately maintain the railway. The unions are in no doubt that safety will be severely compromised by taking out such a huge number of jobs.
Network Rail wants to harmonise the pay and conditions of its maintenance staff, which it took in-house six years ago from a myriad of contractors such as Jarvis. Its proposals for bringing all staff conditions and pay into line were thrown out by the unions because it was trying to sneak in massive changes on flexibility and productivity, including much more weekend and night work, worsening conditions dramatically, but wasn’t prepared to pay for it. Now, it is seeking to impose its will, wanting performance-related pay and a weakening of the bargaining structure into the bargain!
The company has refused to give guarantees of no compulsory redundancies, nor will it guarantee that agreements will be adhered to regarding staff affected by reorganisations and redundancies.
Operations staff, including signallers, have been offered a derisory pay rise that is much lower than current rates of inflation, effectively a pay cut, and have also been balloted for industrial action. A strike by signallers would stop the railway straight away.
Network Rail has developed a culture of bullying and overbearing management, and more and more of its staff, even its managers, have had enough and are prepared to take action, regardless of the vile anti-worker and anti-union propaganda that the company has disseminated amongst its workforce.
TSSA has balloted the company’s managers for action. Not surprisingly, they voted against, but the fact that 35 per cent of those managers voted in favour underlines how high feelings are running.
Not content with cutting 1500 of its own staff, Network Rail has also colluded with the government and other contractors to bring about the downfall of Jarvis, the contractor much vilified after the Potters Bar accident. Over the last six years, Jarvis has been in a parlous financial position, and shortly before Easter its banks called in the debts. The company went into administration and was closed down almost immediately, with the loss of 1200 rail jobs.
What pushed Jarvis over the edge was the fact that Network Rail, encouraged by a government seeking cuts in public expenditure, has delayed 30 per cent of track renewal work that is vital to maintaining the railway. As a result, the company has been making large numbers of redundancies. However, it could not afford to pay the contractual redundancy payments up front and was paying in instalments.
The closure of Jarvis means that these outstanding instalments will not be paid. For those made redundant as a result of the closure, there will be only statutory redundancy payments instead of the much more generous contractual arrangements. At least part of their pensions will disappear. Many staff who have worked for the company since the time before it was privatised now face a threat to their travel passes, that were supposedly protected. All these Jarvis workers were sacked having worked for several weeks without payment.
It is noteworthy that the Railways Act 1993, which paved the way for privatisation of the railways, gave most of the new rail companies special protection in the event of financial difficulty. The Act requires the government to give its permission before such a company can be put into administration. This was apparently done to allow the government to ensure that the railway continued to function should any privatised part of it go bust.
The government cynically chose not to intervene; it could easily have provided guarantees that would have kept Jarvis afloat. Instead, it allowed the company to go under.
The unions and their members are determined to ensure that the government is not allowed to wash its hands of the situation. The work in connection with Jarvis’s contracts still needs to be done.
Sacked Jarvis workers have already organised demonstrations in both York and Doncaster, and another is being planned for London, where they are likely to protest outside Network Rail HQ in Kings Cross. The mood on the demonstrations was of anger and determination. One leading RMT activist has challenged Doncaster MP Ed Miliband to back the campaign to win back jobs, or face being opposed by him in the General Election. Many Jarvis staff live in Doncaster, and there has been massive support in the town.
Network Rail now says that Scotland-based construction firm Babcocks will pick up some of the Jarvis contracts. In the meantime, Network Rail is employing contractors to carry out work on Jarvis contracts on a casual basis, with staff being drafted in from all over the country, and rumours abound of serious breaches of working hours regulations. These arrangements are clearly costing huge sums of money.
Perhaps the most bitter of all the sacked Jarvis staff are those recently transferred to it when Network Rail awarded contracts to Jarvis having removed them from competitors. They have been transferred into redundancy.
Many suspect that Network Rail has been planning both its own showdown with the unions, and the demise of Jarvis for a very long time. The company has almost certainly calculated that the General Election will produce a government that is even more supportive of their battle with the unions. The timing of the Jarvis closure was probably planned months ago. No sooner had the General Election been called than Jarvis was closed down. This may be to minimise the political impact, with the media being obsessed by other issues, or it may be a deliberate attempt to embarrass Labour.
Union officials and reps often say that Network Rail’s attitude to industrial relations is the worst they have experienced, with agreements regularly broken, undertakings reneged upon, and negotiations characterised by a complete lack of trust.
This was most recently demonstrated by the fact that Network Rail deliberately strung out its negotiations while its lawyers prepared for a last minute legal challenge, knowing full well that this would prevent any action being taken before the General Election.
Driving down costs
Babcocks is clearly not enthusiastic about accepting the principle that former Jarvis staff should follow their work to the new employer, and that therefore the TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings) Regulations should apply with staff retaining their pay, conditions and pensions. The suspicion is that Network Rail wants to drive down costs by forcing firms like Jarvis to the wall, and cherry-picking workers to re-employ on worse rates of pay and conditions.
The scene is now set for the railways to become a major industrial battleground immediately after the General Election. If Network Rail staff strike, trains will stop running.
RMT is also engaged in an ongoing campaign of industrial action in Scotland to defend safety after train company First Scotrail broke an agreement that all of its trains would be staffed with a guard.
With London Underground and National Rail train companies looking to reduce station staff, to close booking offices or reduce the hours of opening, other skirmishes look likely.