DAVID BLUNKETT: Can't the unions see a rail strike would be madness?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Can’t the union barons see a rail strike paralysing Britain would be suicidal madness? Walkout by London Underground staff would create travel misery for millions after Platinum Jubilee and severely inconvenience commuters 

With the country already in the grip of rampant inflation, crippling energy costs and global instability, the last thing Britain needs is an outbreak of strike action.

But sadly, that’s what we are heading for in the weeks ahead.

A walk-out of 4,000 station staff on the London Underground planned for Monday, June 6, would not only create travel misery for the millions returning to work after the Platinum Jubilee weekend, but also severely inconvenience commuters travelling from outside the capital, and tourists now flocking to the UK in the post-Covid world.

On top of the Tube strike, the outcome of a ballot last night may lead to industrial action on the main rail network, a stoppage that would involve more than 40,000 people working for Network Rail and 15 train operating companies, causing ‘potentially the biggest rail strike in modern history’.

On June 6, 4,000 London Underground staff plan to strike, which could coincide with industrial action with staff from Network Rail and 15 train operating companies (pictured: Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT)

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union held a strike in March over a deadlocked dispute over jobs, pensions and conditions (Jubilee line trains parked at the London Underground Stratford Market Depot)

Venom

What these two proposed walk-outs have in common is the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) Union, a trade union that, long ago, disaffiliated from the Labour Party and whose militant executive committee members spit out almost as much venom about the party as they do about the Conservative Government.

Historically, the railways have always been a hotbed of trade union action and co-ordinated strikes, but the national rail service that the RMT is determined to bring to its knees has never been more vulnerable.

The pandemic has left it on taxpayer-funded life support, as passenger numbers on both Network Rail and the Underground have dropped dramatically.

The Government stepped in with a funding package nudging £16 bn — the equivalent of £600 for every household in the country — ensuring that no railway workers were furloughed.

But this level of support is wholly unsustainable in the long term. And while passenger numbers are recovering, they will never return to the levels we saw pre-pandemic.

According to a report from the Office for National Statistics, published on Monday, no less than 84 per cent of employees say they will continue to work from home some of the time, and only 8 per cent will return to commuting five days a week.

Members of the RMT Trade union protested at Tottenham Court Road on May 24

London Underground alone — which is partially funded by central government and the Mayor of London, but is also heavily reliant on the paying passenger — is short of £400 million.

Fewer passengers equals less revenue, which in turn means the company can’t afford as many workers.

Even the RMT leadership should grasp this — and understand the implications of punishing those still willing and needing to use the service. It is suicidal madness.

The harder it is to get to work by public transport, the greater the likelihood of people turning away and finding other ways of getting to work — thereby putting even more jobs at risk on the network and further jeopardising its finances.

Quite simply, there is no more money forthcoming from government. Sitting down and working out how savings can be made, without hitting either the service or those employed to provide it, is the only way forward — it must be the order of the day.

Transport for London, which owns London Underground, has promised no compulsory redundancies; they will simply not fill vacancies created by workers leaving the industry or retiring.

But the RMT is demanding a 10 per cent pay rise and better pensions, too.

Given the parlous state of our railways system and the improvements that have already been made to pay and conditions over the past decade, such demands are patently unachievable.

Over the past ten years, the median earnings of train drivers have increased by 39 per cent, well above the national average of 23 per cent, or the 15 per cent for nurses.

The highest-paid train drivers now earn an average of £59,000, compared with £31,000 for nurses and £41,000 for police officers.

When it comes to pensions — another one of the sticking points in negotiations — existing arrangements are already comparatively attractive.

At present, TfL staff pay in 5 per cent of their salary —while TfL contributes a staggering 26.9 per cent towards pension pots.

Most train drivers work a four-day week and, if they have a medical appointment, however short, they are released for the entire shift.

Meanwhile, technology is changing the workplace. Ticket offices, for example, are a significant drain on TfL resources. Yet just 12 per cent of tickets are now bought in ticket offices — and the lowest-performing office in the country saw only 17 transactions in February and March, taking only £642. How can that continue?

Thousands of commuters are forced to queue for buses around London when London Underground services are disrupted strikes

Misery

Not everything is perfect for those working for TfL, of course, but conditions compare favourably with those of other workers and the inescapable fact is that industrial action, with all the misery that this brings, cannot be justified.

Which brings us to the wider strike, if it is called. Not only will the passenger trains be brought to a standstill, but so will those carrying goods.

Egged on by the coterie of far-Left activists that surround him, the leader of the RMT, Mick Lynch, threatens ‘to bring the country to a standstill’ — something that could add shortages of food and essentials to the nation’s already dire economic situation.

Instead of issuing terrifying warnings and threats, the RMT and its sister union, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), could actually make a positive contribution to the state of our railways if they only picked on the right targets.

When it comes to its ludicrously complex maintenance and safety contracts, and an accounting and management system that seems to be completely out of control, Network Rail urgently needs reform.

Maintenance and safety are a concern for all of us, and the union could justifiably argue that job losses in this area could jeopardise the travelling public. After all, the tragedies of the Hatfield train crash in 2000 (when four people died and 70 were injured) and of the 2007 derailment on the West Coast main line in Grayrigg, Cumbria, (when one died and 80 were injured) are too recent in our memories.

London underground trains were stationary at Neasden Railway depot on March 1 this year due to strikes

Disruption

The management structure, meanwhile, could certainly be made more efficient, leading to substantial savings.

The point is that the RMT and the TSSA could be making progress in negotiations.

Instead, they appear to have learned nothing from the past — when the public, sick and tired of disruption, dislocation and inconvenience, turned against them — and we have a stand-off with a Government which is only too eager to find others, such as the unions, to blame for the nation’s ills.

Everyone knows that savings are going to have to be made and that the Government is not going to offer any more bail-outs, either to Transport for London or Network Rail.

And yet, flying in the face of reality at a time of desperate economic need for the entire country, the unions are thoughtlessly pressing on with their demands — even though the workers themselves can’t afford to lose the income that strike action entails.

As I said, this posturing and threatening is self-destructive. And just at a time when we have never needed collaboration and co-operation more urgently.

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