The Summer of Discontent and the Battle of the British Railways


As Britain’s railway workers continue to strike, should the government be looking for more radical solutions?

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By Tom Lindley

It is almost exactly twelve months since industrial action on the railways first commenced yet there appears no light at the end of the tunnel. Disputes have rolled on with neither the rail unions, train operators nor government showing any great signs of an imminent agreement. This has resulted in severe disruption for passengers across the country, many of whom face rising fares and a deteriorating service. Therefore the recent announcements of further rail strikes are surely to raise further public discussion.

This situation is especially true here in York, a city once famed for its rich railway heritage. Many services have been cancelled or delayed because of the industrial action, at great inconvenience to the passenger. However, members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) see this as an inevitable consequence brought on by years of stagnant pay and job insecurity. Nouse spoke to an official spokesman from the RMT, who claimed “railway companies have been streamlining their operations, drastically cutting the number of employees.” With mass redundancies seemingly in the pipeline, union members have seen no alternative but to fight for their job security.

By streamlining services, replacing ticket offices with machines, many see this as simply a sign of the times. Supposedly, the days of queuing for tickets have been switched with electronic screens and all-round quicker service. While this has meant many railway jobs are increasingly at risk, some passengers find the plans for a faster service a positive outcome. With the ever-increasing prices of train fares, consumers are looking for a service at the forefront of modern technology, even at the cost of rail worker jobs.

With further dates for industrial action being announced throughout the month of June, it seems as though the government is a long way off before it can successfully negotiate with the unions. The spokesman told Nouse that few compromises were being made on the government’s part to reconsider the offers they put forward to the unions. When asked about these recent pay offers, he said the issue lied not in the pay increase, but rather the additional terms and conditions that come along with accepting the offer. Although never directly divulging what these ‘terms and conditions’ are, one can only guess they are related to the concerns over job security. As for the pay increase offered, these figures are a five percent rise this year, followed by an additional four percent rise the following year.

The pay offers are well below the record inflation the country has seen, yet the spokesman assured Nouse that the pay was satisfactory. Despite this, the RMT members continue to strike. So if money can’t buy an end to the strikes, the only solution seems to be better job security for railway workers. Perhaps this means that a more drastic form of action must be taken by the government to fix the longstanding dissatisfaction railway workers have. The government can’t guarantee job security while private firms run the railway. Their most obvious solution would therefore be a reintroduction of government-run railways. Many seasoned railway workers are longing for their bygone conditions, where the profit motive was taken out of public services and instead invested into the service itself. With many workers comparing the current system as a race to the bottom, cutting costs and streamlining services at the expense of the employee will surely never lead to a satisfied workforce.

For those who remember the days of British Rail, their recollections are seldom positive. Many remember an out-of-date bureaucratic institution filled with the same problems we see in Britain’s modern railways. For them, the call for more government control over railways will ensure the same problems exist, however this time it will be because of slow government rather than greedy rail firms. It may seem a step backwards, considering nationalised railways have been tried, tested and discarded, but what the government, unions and passengers can all agree on is that serious changes are needed.

Support from the public is unlikely to last well into the future, as more plans are cancelled because of cancelled trains. Ultimately, the commuter cares that their train arrives on time and doesn't cost a small fortune to use. If industrial action puts a stop to a (relatively) punctual service, then both parties miss out. It’s therefore down to the government to protect consumers and get the railways running. If this doesn’t happen, Britain will quickly find itself repeating events of forty-four years ago, during the Winter of Discontent. Instead of the privatisation that followed, perhaps the answer for the government is this time, the opposite.