UK media coverage would have us believe that the disputes between the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), Network Rail and rail operating companies and the Communication Workers Union (CWU)’s with the Royal Mail are only about pay. At the heart of these industrial actions is the question of the future of these services.
What are the disputes?
The RMT will be taking strike action over Christmas in a dispute over pay and conditions that has been running with Network Rail, the publicly owned body responsible for managing the UK railway infrastructure, and fourteen rail companies since June of this year. At the same time postal workers are out on strike in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions with the Royal Mail.
Most of the media coverage of these disputes has focused on the unions’ pay demands. Right wing tabloids have labelled the strikers ‘greedy union extremists’ and in coverage of the RMT dispute, focus has been on the amount train drivers are paid, despite the fact that these workers are almost entirely represented by ASLEF, a different union. Pay is a critical part of the strike action, particularly in relation to NHS workers who are out on strike this month. This year saw the biggest fall in pay in twenty years, as spiralling inflation, often dubbed the ‘cost of living crisis’ pushes more and more people into poverty. Meanwhile a Unite the Union analysis of profits of the FTSE 350 revealed profit margins that were 75% higher in 2021 than before the coronavirus pandemic.
Other factors at stake are given less attention. Alongside real-term pay cuts, the Royal Mail is proposing the introduction of Uber-style owner-drivers, mail centre closures and changes to Sunday working. These are plans that tear up the nine-year modernisation deal that had been agreed between Royal Mail bosses and the union. Train workers too have indicated that they would be willing to accept a below-inflation pay offer but cannot agree to the proposed changes to the service, in particular compulsory redundancies that would mean cuts to maintenance, less staff on stations and trains and the closure of almost all ticket offices, which the union argues puts passengers’ safety at risk.
The proposed 50% threatened cut to maintenance tasks is particularly concerning when looking at the track record of Network Rail. Using Violation Tracker UK, which tracks the enforcement actions of 49 different government agencies since 2010, we can get a better idea of the past conduct of companies and public bodies. A quick search of the database shows that Network Rail has had to pay out a staggering £18,852,860 for safety-related offences. In 2016 a pedestrian was killed at a level-crossing after Network Rail had failed to act on warnings that it was unsafe, a similar incident had happened in 2013 when car passengers were seriously injured. Poor maintenance work was found to have led to the de-railing of a train in 2012 that caused one death and serious injury to 28 people. The worst was perhaps the Potters Bar crash in 2002 that saw seven people lose their lives and led to a £3,000,000 fine for Network Rail after a nine-year inquiry. Network Rail also has a string of safety violations against its own workers, with multiple employees killed or seriously injured due to breaches of health and safety law.
The suggested reduction of guards on trains and station platforms should also be looked at in the context of past railroad and workplace safety offences. Deutsche Bahn, owned by the German government, which operates Arriva has racked up £4,687,885 in total penalties paid out for corporate infringements since 2012, mostly in the last four years. Almost all this sum was paid in fines for safety-related offences such as causing injury and death by failing to prevent unauthorised access to freight terminals and depots and leaving high voltage overhead cables switched on. One employee suffered an amputation of his right arm for which the company pled guilty and was ordered to pay £200,000 in compensation. Go-Ahead, a company partially owned by HSBC, itself a financial institution with a penalty total of almost £300 million for corporate misconduct, also has a poor record on safety. Around half of its £9,560,367 in total penalties come from safety related violations including the killing of a passenger due to an unsecured train window and the electrocution of a cleaner by live rail whilst they were cleaning a train. Serco, which wholly owns Caledonian Sleeper, has a grand penalty total of £56,632,385. When it owned the Docklands Light Railway it was notably fined £493,773 for inadequate safety procedures after one of its automatic trains struck and killed someone who had fallen onto the tracks. The judgment found that the company had been relying on CCTV images to determine whether a train should be stopped in an emergency, a system that was not designed for this purpose.
It is a similar story for other rail operators. Ferrovial S.A., partially owned by notorious offender JP Morgan, wholly owns Amey, which has had 13 safety-related violations in recent years for which it has paid a total of £1,485,750. FirstGroup, was found to have failed to protect passengers stranded on a broken down train in 2013, for which it was fined £102,718.
Alongside the prospective decline in safety standards, strike action also relates to the experience of the workplace. Media coverage of strikes has focused almost entirely on the workers, rather than the companies employing them.
Royal Mail for instance, has one of the worst records of labour standards violations in the UK. It has been found to have acted unlawfully on 67 occasions since 2012 and has had to pay out a total of £52,449,029 in fines. Price-fixing and consumer-protection related offences may have cost them more, but the sheer number of cases brought against them for employment related infringements should lead us to ask what has happened to the management of the corporation, particularly in the last five years. Since 2017 they have been found guilty of labour standards violations 57 times; for race, sex, disability, sexual orientation, religion and age discrimination and also breaches of contract and working time regulations, unlawful wage deduction and unfair dismissal.
Train operating companies have also been found guilty of similar offences. FirstGroup, which operates Southwestern, the TransPennine Express and the Great Western Railways has a total of fifteen employment related violations including paying out £82,062 to an employee for disability discrimination. Go-Ahead have a total of sixteen labour standards violations since 2017. Abellio, completely owned by the Dutch government, is the sole operator of East Midlands, and has a stake in East Anglia rail and West Midlands rail as well as bus services across the country has also been found guilty of sixteen employment-related offences with increasing frequency since 2017. Their biggest single penalty was for a pension plan violation this year. Trenitalia, owned by the Italian government, was found guilty of four pension plan violations, also this year.
Whether it is the 57 labour standards violations committed by Royal Mail, or the dire safety record of Network Rail and train operating companies, by and large these records of infringements do not feature in the media coverage of the current strike action taken by workers. Given the current cost-of-living crisis when workers are facing real-term pay cuts across the board, it is no surprise that we are seeing so much strike action. But these strikes are not just about pay, they are about the question of whether these services can continue as we know them under the proposed changes to working conditions.
When RMT members state that compulsory redundancies would significantly increase the safety risk to passengers and workers, should we not look at railroad safety records and ask whether better staffing could have improved outcomes in historic cases, and whether reduced staffing could lead to further tragedy?
When postal workers protest that the service is being mismanaged, should we not be taking into account the recent history of the company – the millions paid out for competition-related offences and the large number of employment tribunals that found the company guilty of various discrimination and breaches of contract?
Violation Tracker UK is a good place to get a better view of the context of these disputes, understand the issues that workers are facing and the potential long-term and serious consequences of these proposed changes to working conditions.
All of the individual cases reported in this blog piece are available to view in the Violation Tracker UK database: https://violationtrackeruk.staging.goodjobsfirst.org/. You can follow Violation Tracker UK on twitter @VT__UK (note: there are two underscores).