Unions have a vital role in rail. Love them or loathe them, they provide a voice for railway staff.

They provide a counter to managers’ more extreme ideas. In turn, managers provide a counter to unions’ more extreme demands.

Rail has three specialist unions. ASLEF covers footplate staff, mainly drivers today. Its roots are clear in its full name, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. The RMT covers other train crew, such as guards, and operational staff such as signallers. The TSSA covers office staff, those in jobs that traditionally came with salaries. Hence its full name, Transport Salaried Staff Association. A fourth union, Unite, is a generalist union to which depot engineering staff might belong.

The RMT is the youngest. It formed in 1990 through the merger of the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Union of Seamen. Its history stretches back to 1872 and the registration as a union of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS). This union merged with others in 1913 to form the NUR.

ASLEF was founded in 1880 and the TSSA in 1951. The TSSA came from the Railway Clerks’ Association which formed in 1899 when the National Association of General Railway Clerks renamed itself two years after its formation. The first clerks’ association formed in London in 1865.

Improving conditions

That history is important and provides the foundation for the unions’ continued efforts to improve their members’ working conditions. When the NUR marked its silver jubilee in 1938, General Secretary John Marchbank wrote of its early history as the ASRS: “The founders of the union had to contend with men who had no experience of organisation, who were required to work very long hours, for exceedingly low wages, on a system which provided little protection against accident, and where the outlook of the management was such that it meant a complete denial of the right of railwaymen to be consulted regarding the conditions of their employment.

“The union immediately set itself the task of drawing public attention to the actual state of things, and constant representations were made to the Government regarding the dangers to which railwaymen and the public were subjected.”

This passage underlines the divide between management and union. You can be one or the other but you can’t be both. NUR General Secretary James Thomas joined Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour government cabinet in 1924 and between 1929 and 1931. When he joined Macdonald’s national government’s cabinet in 1931 he found himself in a government that was cutting public services. For this he was sacked as NUR general secretary and stripped of his union pension.

With nationalisation in 1948, NUR GS John Benstead joined the British Transport Commission as the Labour government looked to include worker representation. His union’s general conference voted to eject him from its pension scheme. This was despite the executive committee recommending that he be allowed to remain.

Likewise ASLEF GS Bill Allen joined the Railway Executive. He became responsible for the management’s side of wage negotiations.

Pay falling back

They faced successors unwilling to link pay negotiations with productivity improvements. The unions were unhappy that railway pay was slipping behind other industries. Management was unhappy that government ministers intervened in disputes to trigger higher settlements than it wanted.

Fast forward to today and the RMT wants a pay rise for members after two frozen years. However, it wants no changes to working practices that will increase night or weekend working. The union agreed last January an ‘enabling framework agreement’ with rail companies. It says: “To specifically address the workforce reforms and staff cost challenges the rail industry is facing, the employers and trade unions have agreed to set up a Rail Industry Recovery Group (RIRG). This group will identify and address areas/issues to reduce the operating costs of the railway and ensure a sustainable rail industry which will improve employment security concerns for the future.”

The document talks about an industry wide voluntary redundancy. It includes a commitment to implement no compulsory redundancies before December 2021. It talks about retraining and a recruitment freeze. The document also talks about removing duplication, removing outdated working practices, streamlining management structures and maximising productivity.

So while the unions have agreed to talk they have not agreed to implement anything. Network Rail has started its voluntary redundancy scheme. It is taking head office management grades first because it says this area has “disproportionately grown over the last decade.” The company told me it has not yet decided which roles and grades would be eligible in later phases but said it wanted to avoid compulsory redundancies.

Voluntary redundancies

Voluntary schemes put the unions in a tricky position. They can’t stop any individual union member deciding to apply for voluntary redundancy. Yet they rail against cuts in jobs. TSSA GS Manuel Cortes said in a statement on August 9: “These cuts are being driven by bean counters who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Our union is already in dispute with Network Rail and I will be speaking to our colleagues in the other rail unions about the possibility of coordinated industrial action next month.

“The fact that Network Rail don’t know what structure they want, or need to put in place as a result of this restructuring, should worry everyone who uses our rail network.”

Cortes questioned why NR was launching its own scheme when the RIRG agreement it signed talked about an industry wide scheme. I put this point to NR but received no reply.

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch noted of rail employers: “They are seeking to get the job cuts in first and organise the industry after. The idea that we would sign up to this cavalier and dangerous approach is clearly nonsense.”

Looking over recent disputes, I think that the RMT likes to strike first and then negotiate. To strike, it needs a successful ballot from members. It’s not credible to ballot members over a voluntary scheme. However it can ballot if NR and other rail companies move to compulsory redundancies.

Winning ballots

I suspect the unions would win such ballots. The RMT has managed to win ballots recently on much weaker cases. Conductors at East Midlands Railway recently voted 96 for and 29 against (from 176 eligible to vote) to strike over EMR’s plan to run Class 360 EMUs in multiple with only one train manager aboard. Yet other companies run EMUs which also have no corridor connections in this way (or even as driver-only trains).

At ScotRail, conductors have been striking on Sundays for several months after ScotRail fulfilled its side of a deal with the RMT to recruit and train more conductors. With these extra conductors in place, there’s no longer a need to pay them extra to encourage them to work rest days.

ScotRail has a similar deal with drivers but it’s not been able to train them because of COVID-19 restrictions and so ScotRail is still paying drivers extra. With those restrictions only now easing and 160 trainee drivers affected, it’s likely ScotRail will continue paying drivers extra into next year. The RMT sees this as unfair and secured a vote for strikes of 353 for and 117 against from 631 eligible members last March.

The union is now calling on conductors to renew that mandate (in line with legislation around votes for industrial action) with a ballot that closes on August 26. So far the RMT has won no concessions from ScotRail or the Scottish government. The August ballot result will show whether the union is winning or losing its case with its members.

It doesn’t always win as guards working for South Western Railway showed in April. They voted 516 for and 132 against a proposal from SWR to have drivers open and close doors rather than guards. This vote followed 27 days of strikes in December 2019 within a total of 74 days between 2017 and 2020.

Tough times

When it comes to industry restructuring, there’s a rocky road ahead. I’ve some sympathy with Mick Lynch’s view that NR doesn’t know what it wants. Graham Eccles (who ran South West Trains) noted on Twitter: “It’s easy to run a voluntary redundancy scheme and get rid of admin roles. The real staff cost savings are in changing the volume of work carried out and the working practices and conditions. The latter requires a strategic approach and very careful implementation. Not easy at all.”

Time will show whether railway managers have the stomach for that. They can be sure the trade unions do. NR has only recently moved towards devolution, which allowed its regional chiefs to shape and recruit their own teams. To now start redundancies promotes a perception that NR doesn’t really know what it wants.

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL Magazine in August 2021. For more see http://railmagazine.com

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.