Potential disruption of the rail network had been looming for several weeks when the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers finally announced the go-ahead ahead for three days of strike action in late June.
The threat of confrontation became a valuable prop for Conservative-supporting newspapers which tried to divert attention from the government’s woes by trashing and tormenting the rail union leadership with alarmist story lines and ever more desperate personal attacks.
Instead of examining the repercussions for the railways of the working-from- home phenomenon and assessing the chances of commuter traffic returning to pre-pandemic levels, the Tory press concentrated on delivering a plethora of outlandish, make-believe scare stories.
Initially the trajectory was all too familiar to anyone who remembered the union bashing coverage of the 1970s and 1980s:
‘Rail union dinosaurs in plot to sabotage the Queen’s Jubilee,’ (Daily Mail, 19.5.2022)
‘Food shortage fear from summer of rail strikes’ (Daily Express, 21.5.2022)
‘Rail strikes could cause blackouts’ (Daily Mail, 24.5.2022)
‘Union railmen stick up for Kremlin’ (The Times, 28.5.2022)
Having worked during the Thatcher decade alongside journalists whose daily task it was to churn out such scaremongering story lines, perhaps Leo McKinstry’s commentary – ‘We need Thatcher’s iron will to defeat the union militants’ (Daily Express, 26.5.2022) – was the best illustration of the echo chamber which the Tory press continues to present its readers.
While lurid headlines might have chimed with their readers – ‘Anti-monarchist union firebrand whose profile picture is evil Thunderbirds mastermind’ (Daily Mail, 9.6.2022) – these attacks worked to the advantage of the RMT general secretary Mick Lynch.
Being branded a militant, as dangerous as his late predecessor Bob Crow, or the mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill, strengthened his own position within the RMT and the resolve of his members.
An 89 per cent vote in favour of industrial action on a 71 per cent turn out among 40,000 RMT members on Network Rail and train operators was vindication indeed for Lynch’s warning that the country faced the biggest rail strike since privatisation in the late 1990s.
By calling strikes on three separate days – June 21, 23 and 25 – the RMT’s action would in effect curtail, if not halt, the network for an entire week.
Banner front-page headlines – ‘Hard-left rail union strike to paralyse Britain’ (Daily Mail, 8.6.2022) – left the government in no doubt that the Tory press was on the warpath and that an anti-union crackdown was urgently needed.
Within days ministers were using signed newspaper articles and exclusive interviews to promote a raft of emergency measures aimed at minimising disruption and preparing fresh legislation to curb the unions.
Overtime on non-strike days would be banned through the introduction of a restricted railway timetable to prevent strikers recouping lost pay through extra shifts.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps promised “very fast” legal changes to allow agency workers to be hired to replace striking rail staff – ‘We’ll break rail strikes with agency staff, warns Shapps’ (Daily Mail, 13.6.2022).
A long-term restraint on the effectiveness of future rail strikes would be achieved through introducing legislation to require the rail unions to provide sufficient staff to operate a minimum service, the equivalent of around 15 per cent of the timetable.
Another well-worn trick of the Tory press was to open an offensive against Labour MPs by publicising campaign donations they had received from the RMT and other unions: ‘How rail wreckers bankroll Labour’ (Sun on Sunday, 12.6.2022).
After several of his shadow cabinet expressed solidarity with the RMT, Labour leader Keir Starmer was under fire for failing to condemn the walkouts. As a reminder, a daily ‘Keir Starmer strike-o-meter’ was printed by the Daily Mail.
Starmer’s caution was in sharp contrast to the RMT’s combative stance, a standpoint Lynch was only too happy to defend when interviewed by Nick Robinson for his podcast Political Thinking.
He had no intention of shying away from being cast as a union willing to pick a fight, whatever the personal notoriety this attracted:
“I don’t seek it, but if I wasn’t known, I wouldn’t be doing my job…I know I have an ego…but it’s because I want my union to have a high profile.”
Unlike some unions, he said the RMT had not lost the ability to call strike action and bargain for higher pay with Network Rail, train operators and Transport for London. His members had not lost either their final salary pension scheme or terms and conditions.
“We have done well in some negotiations. We have maintained our position while others have lost out.”
Mr Lynch pointed to pay rates on London Underground. Tube drivers used to be on the same pay as bus drivers, but the buses had been sub-contracted out and bus drivers relegated down the pay league.
By comparing the success of the RMT’s militancy with the performance of other transport unions, Mr Lynch was drawing attention to what 30 to 40 years ago would have been an all-important story line for the former labour and industrial correspondents.
Pay bargaining, workers’ terms and conditions and changes to employment law were issues that used to attract detailed coverage across the media and the absence today of such commentary only serves to highlight the lack of any counterbalance to anti-union headlines in the Tory press.
In depth analysis of the reasons for strike action, and the employers’ responses, were the backbone of the output of journalists who played a vital role in the national and local press, radio, and television.
If in the mainstream media of today there was again the same focus on employment issues and the wider world of trade union affairs, we would have a far better understanding of the impact on working life resulting from both the Covid.19 pandemic and the continuing upheaval over Brexit.
Currently there are fewer people in work; working from home is the norm for a sizeable section of the workforce; and many more have faced an upheaval in their daily routines across wide sectors of industry and business.
Many employees only commute on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; others benefit from a four-day week. According to the Office for National Statistics these arrangements, together with a variety of other hybrid WFH regimes, have become an almost permanent condition for 40 per cent of people – and for up 60 per cent of the workforce in Greater London.
A drop in weekday passenger traffic on commuter lines of 20 to 25 per cent and similar falls on the London Underground have to be addressed by Network Rail, train operators and Transport for London and this shift in working patterns cannot be ignored by the RMT and other rail unions.
Up to 2,500 rail jobs, including maintenance workers on tracks, signals, and overhead lines, would be at risk under a proposed £2 billion cut in spending; TfL is seeking a reduction of £400 million, necessitating the closure of 600 posts.
After some “intense talks” failed to secure either a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies or a pay offer after a two-year wage freeze, the union said it had no alternative but to call for three days of strikes.
The two sides did agree a week later to enter informal talks, but union negotiators do like to take advantage of a rapidly approaching deadline and for the RMT the cliff hanger of on-off strike action goes with the territory.
Illustrations: Daily Express, 13.6.2022; Daily Mail, 24.5.2022; Daily Express, 26.5.2022; City AM, 30.5.2022; Daily Mail, 4.3.2022.