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Railworkers Fight Effects of Government and Bosses’ Privatisation

For a class-struggle leadership, not conciliation!

Supplement, 1 October 1998

Over the summer two groups of railworkers in the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) trade union have been battling a drive by New Labour and the bosses to cut jobs, cut pay, increase hours and further privatise the rail industry. This fight, carried out by a union with a reputation for militancy in a key industry, could have broad ramifications. The attacks faced by railworkers are the same attacks faced by all working people in Blair’s Britain – healthworkers, firefighters, teachers and postal workers have been involved in similar disputes. With recession looming, this is nothing less than a test of how much the Blair government can cut from the living standards of working people to salvage British capitalism.

As if taking on the government and the owners of privatised rail companies wasn’t enough, the railworkers are being badly let down by those they elect and pay to be on their side – the leadership of their own union. Even the most elementary defence of the railworkers, as well as any hope of moving forward, is dependent on fighting and defying the draconian anti-union laws imposed by the Tories and retained by New Labour – something the union leaders are conspicuously unwilling to do.

Since June, 12,000 RMT railworkers from Cornwall to Scotland on the former British Rail mainline railway have been fighting against a restructuring deal pushed by the private rail infrastructure companies who do contract work for Railtrack plc. These low-paid workers do the essential work to ensure the safety of the track, points, signals and overhead electrical cables.

Since the last Tory government privatised British Rail, 42,000 jobs have been scrapped, and the working week has shot up to as much as 72 hours! Railworkers are fed up with the bosses squeezing them for more ‘flexibility’ and ‘productivity’. The RMT is demanding job security, a 35-hour week, the retention of unsociable hours payments, cross-company equal pay and cross-company national bargaining.

Also in June, 6500 RMT railworkers on London Underground held three days of strike action, fighting the New Labour government and Tube bosses’ Public Private Partnership (PPP) – in other words, privatisation of the Tube network. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, often falsely portrayed as the ‘workers friend’ in the bosses’ press, announced the government’s ‘third way’ privatisation plan in March, to overcome decades of lack of investment in the creaking Tube system. This is something even the Tories never dared to try and implement!

Privatisation of the tube has in fact already begun. The Underground Ticketing System technicians are being handed over to the private Transys, power supply workers are being passed to the private Seeboard, and the privatisation of the Railway Equipment Works at Acton is only delayed.

While nationalised industries under capitalist rule are no guarantee in themselves of satisfactory service or decent working conditions, the example of the rail industry clearly proves that this latest round of privatisations is just a cover for a massive attack on the working class. The privatisations must be opposed! But we do not call for a return to the inefficient service and legendary cuisine of the old British Rail, nor for retention of the existing dangerously crowded (mainly) publicly-owned tube system. Nationalisation in itself only serves the interests of those who run the nation. This is why socialists will not be satisfied with piecemeal nationalisation under capitalism but fight for the expropriation of capitalist property by the working class. The rail industry should be in the hands of those who work the trains, tracks and stations, and the passengers who use the services.

Worse service, bigger profits, lower wages

The needs of the workers rather than the particular bosses’ ability to pay should be the basis of union action, but in fact all the companies involved can easily afford to meet the RMT demands, a fact which should be used to build widespread support for the railworkers’ struggle among the general public. Rail services continue to get worse. Investment, about one billion in the early 1990s, has fallen by 10%, despite the taxpayers’ subsidy trebling between 1989 and 1997. Fares are consistently rising by more than the rate of inflation, while train cancellations, delays and passenger complaints have soared. Yet rail companies make one billion profit a year out of this chaos. What a way to run a railway!

So far the 17 strike days and an overtime ban have cost Railtrack and the privateer capitalists millions of pounds in delayed contracts and lost work. While they have not stopped train services run by the private train operating companies, who have flagrantly disregarded safety regulations, they have bitten into the bosses’ profits, the only language they understand.

Under privatisation, the workforce has been weakened through division into small units, negotiating separately with different bosses – companies such as Balfour Beatty, Centrac, AMEY, AMEC, GTRM and Jarvis. A recent leaflet put out in the name of the Harlesden RMT branch in support of victimised activist Steve Hedley says that the aims of the overtime ban are ‘to force GTRM to offer the same rates of pay already on offer from AMEY Railways (ie; £16,000 for a basic trackman)’. This is selling ourselves far too short! A strategy of seeking individual settlements with each company, and then trying to match them, is likely to produce different sets of pay and working conditions at different companies and undermine the unity necessary for future struggles. Our objective should be for industry-wide action to fight for an industry-wide settlement that cuts hours, restores thousands of jobs and ensures that all RMT workers earn a wage substantially better than that on offer from AMEY.

The Marxist Bulletin and the International Bolshevik Tendency

Following our resignation from the Socialist Labour Party earlier this year (see issue 7) the comrades of the Marxist Bulletin have been engaged in discussions with the comrades of the International Bolshevik Tendency to discuss our future organisational relationship with them.

It is clear that both organisations have fundamental political agreement on the central questions of Marxism. Now that the comrades of the Marxist Bulletin are no longer an internal faction of the Socialist Labour Party it is appropriate that we reconsider our formal organisational links with the IBT.

We therefore declare our open political solidarity with the IBT and commit ourselvs to the building of a British section of the IBT.

Defend victimised activists! Defend picket lines!

Steve Hedley, chair of RMT Harlesden Engineering branch and local staff rep for GTRM workers at Euston, was arrested by the cops on the picket line on 3 July on a trumped up charge of damaging a scab van the previous morning. He was first suspended, then fired, and finally charged with criminal damage – a clear case of stitch up to remove a key trade unionist from the dispute!

Any union sister or brother accused of defending picket lines must have the full and active protection of the labour movement. Any, and all, measures aimed at stopping scabs from doing the work of strikers are not only permissible, but necessary. And we shouldn’t let spurious questions of capitalist ‘legality’ or the anti-union laws stand in our way. If workers had always submitted to the bosses’ rules (which is all that the legal system really represents) we wouldn’t be able to vote, our children wouldn’t have schools to go to, we wouldn’t have any kind of health system and we certainly wouldn’t have unions.

On the Monday following Hedley’s dismissal his local section walked off the job in an unofficial protest strike. Outrageously, instead of supporting striking and victimised workers, RMT general secretary Jimmy Knapp immediately condemned this brave act and disassociated the union from action contrary to the anti-union laws. At this signal, the bosses threatened all the workers with the sack, forcing a return to work. Don Nicolson, Hedley’s branch secretary, replied to Knapp: ‘in return for Steve’s steadfast work on behalf of this union and in return for the bravery of the GTRM strikers you have freely chosen to take the side of GTRM.... Just as his co-workers risked a lot to defend him, you may have risked more by letting him down.’

‘Left’ union leaders follow the right

Some eight members, almost half of the RMT Council of Executives, opposed Knapp’s intervention against the unofficial action. However, Bob Crow, RMT assistant general secretary, Socialist Labour Party NEC member and (ironically) leading light in the Reclaim our Rights campaign to oppose the anti-TU laws, has declared that Knapp’s action was ‘necessary’!

Crow assures activists that Hedley’s victimisation will be top of the agenda in any negotiations in the national dispute. But RMT members will now have little faith in these ‘negotiations’ or Crow’s declared support for defying the anti-union laws. ‘Left’ bureaucrats like Crow are, in their own way, more dangerous than pro-Blairites like Knapp in that they fool many union activists into believing they are on their side.

Hedley’s immediate reinstatement with full back pay must be a precondition for any negotiations. This will not be achieved by back room deals, but by militant industrial action. The Harlesden leaflet in support of Hedley claims that ‘The union leaders realise that the only way to gain decent pay and conditions is to negotiate from a position of strength.’ A nice thought – but Knapp, Crow et al seem to have a strange idea of ‘strength’.

The anti-union laws forbid solidarity strikes, flying pickets, strikes without ballots or at short notice – in fact most tactics that are at all effective in carrying out an industrial dispute! Any union leaders who put respect for capitalist legality ahead of the needs of their members are nothing more than the agents of the bosses in the workers movement.

Union members are deeply demoralised by decades spent under a leadership cowering in fear of the legal arm of the state. It is not simply a question of letting free an untapped militancy held back by a bureaucratic leadership, but also of rebuilding confidence in the possibilities of militancy. With a determined and aggressive class-struggle leadership willing to support and lead militant action, railworkers would soon learn to use their very considerable power.

A strike support committee has organised a protest demonstration outside Hedley’s court case on 13 October (9.30am at Clerkenwell Magistrates Court). Meanwhile, the GTRM railworkers at Euston began official strike action with a four-day stoppage from 25 September. To prevent Euston from being isolated the dispute must be extended across the whole of the rail industry, both as the best way to win Steve Hedley’s job back and as part of the wider campaign against the attacks taking place under the banner of privatisation.

One rail industry – one rail union!

The tubeworkers’ strike in June managed to stop 50% of the train service during the rush hours and shut about 28 stations – not bad considering the workforce is split between three main unions, the all-grades industrial RMT, the train drivers ASLEF and the mainly white-collar TSSA, and a rising number of non-union workers. It was good to see many ASLEF drivers ignoring their general secretary Lew Adams’ instructions to cross RMT picket lines, or taking out temporary dual membership with the RMT. The Northern Line branch of ASLEF even issued a counter leaflet urging its members not to cross.

The RMT leadership has now suspended strike action during talks with Transport Minister John Prescott and Chair of Parliamentary Transport Select Committee Gwyneth Dunwoody. This is exactly wrong. The bosses and their government are only willing to talk because they fear further strikes, so tubeworkers should step up strike action, and wage an aggressive campaign to win secure jobs, decent pay and good working conditions.

Beware of back-stabbing bureaucrats

Jimmy Knapp sees the two rail disputes as separate, sectional and narrowly economic. But privatisation affects all workers – this is a political fight against Tory and New Labour attacks. Knapp may dislike some of Blair’s more extreme ‘modernising’, but still sees this government as some kind of friend – a perspective that can only disarm the RMT. ASLEF’s Lew Adams, a rather keener pro-Blair New Labourite, not only tells his members to cross picket lines but has come out in favour of Prescott’s PPP plans. As for Richard Prosser, general secretary of TSSA, under his leadership the union has become known as ‘Too Scared to Say Anything’! All demonstrate the willingness of the trade union leaders to use the threat of the anti-union laws to dampen down militant and cross-union action.

The lack of co-ordinated action between the RMT and ASLEF is a major stumbling block to effective struggle against the attacks of the bosses. ASLEF members have now elected Dave Rix of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) to replace Lew Adams as general secretary from 1 October. Some see this as heralding a new dawn of co-operation between ASLEF and the RMT through the channels of the Socialist Labour Party with its supposed commitment to militant trade unionism. Rix joins several of his comrades who hold leading positions in the RMT, including Bob Crow, Patrick Sikorski, Bob Law and Mick Atherton.

The election of these individuals does reflect the aspirations of the more militant layer in the unions who want to fight, and the SLP is creating some channels for these aspirations, notably the Reclaim our Rights campaign against the anti-union laws. But even on this question they are deeply divided. While Crow supports renunciation of the Euston unofficial action, Sikorski denounces that renunciation from the same platform – without openly criticising his SLP comrades.

The SLP poses as a party that stands for the interests of workers, but the actions of its leadership, its deep internal contradictions and its failure to effectively organise even its own members show it as unable to fulfil this role. Its left reformist programme cannot provide effective leadership to the working class because it does not go beyond the framework of capitalist ‘rationality’. Any members of the SLP who want to build a party that can fight for workers’ interests must be prepared to publicly criticise and break with betrayals such as Crow’s attack on striking workers at Euston.

Blair’s New Labour for British business

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Stalinist ‘communist’ parties and the social democrats no longer even pretend to favour a socialist solution to the problems created by capitalism. The bosses, who have always regarded every social gain won by working people as a deduction from profits, are now launching new attacks on many fronts. The working class desperately needs to rebuild new mass workers’ parties in every country as part of an international organisation to resist the bosses’ offensives, armed with a political programme that learns from the old defeats.

These attacks on rail workers have demonstrated, if further demonstration was necessary, that New Labour is the enemy of working people, and the agent of the City and big business. Blair has made no secret of his programme – he promised well before he was elected that New Labour would keep the national railways private and keep all the Tories’ anti-union laws. New Labour did not say they would privatise London Underground, yet within 11 months John Prescott announces full-blown plans to do just that! It is clear that under Blair’s leadership the Labour Party is well down the road to becoming, like the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, a simple bourgeois party. The handful of Labour MPs who still claim to stand with the workers against the bosses should put their money where their mouths are and break from Labour to sit as independent pro-worker MPs.

Despite the betrayals of the Blairite leadership, many of the ostensible revolutionary groups with any small influence in the rail unions (Socialist Outlook, Workers Liberty and the Socialist Workers Party), perversely still advocate political support to New Labour! They show a touching faith in the labour left to support campaigns against tube privatisation and the anti-union laws – support given in the occasional speech but never in the much needed break from the Blairite party.

Some activists see the way forward in the building of a movement of rank and file trade unionists to oppose the current leadership. But in the interests of ‘unity’, these projects typically have little agreement on a programmatic basis for a challenge for the leadership of the unions. When such movements do successfully stand for office, in the absence of a revolutionary class-struggle programme they simply become left-talking versions of the leaders they replace. Individuals in union positions, however well-meaning, can achieve nothing significant without challenging the reformist political logic that ties the unions to New Labour and the defence of capitalism.

Railworkers need what all workers need – secure jobs, good pay, strong unions, decent free healthcare, good education, and more leisure time. But militant trade unionism by itself is not enough to get what we need. Any major strike of workers against the bosses’ comes up sooner or later against the cops, courts and government – the forces of the capitalist state. Instead of trumpeting the virtue of the rank and file in and of itself, we need to build caucuses in the unions around a political programme for working class power that can successfully meet the assaults of the bosses.

Such caucuses should work with other groups and individuals in the unions in united fronts around various issues which advance working class interests – for example in support of strikes or defence of victimised activists, or against the anti-union laws.

The London region of the RMT has set up a Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, and the United Campaign to Repeal the Anti-Trade Union Laws (formed by the SLP’s Reclaim Our Rights campaign, the AWL’s Free Trade Unions Campaign, the Communication Workers Union and others) is calling for a national demonstration on May Day 1999.

These have the potential to be important mobilisations – but the spearhead of the struggle must be industrial confrontation such as that which has barely begun between the RMT and the rail bosses. A successful strike against the privateers and their New Labour backers could do a lot to unleash the power of eight million organised workers, lay the basis for the growth of a revolutionary, class-struggle wing of the union movement and radically change the political landscape in Britain.

  • Victory to the RMT strikers! Reinstate Steve Hedley!
  • Build strike support groups in every town and city! For joint RMT/ASLEF/TSSA strike committees!
  • Build mass picket lines that no-one crosses! Smash the anti-TU laws!
  • Fight for better wages and working conditions for transport workers! For a reduced working week with no loss in pay!
  • For a massive programme of rebuilding and extension for rail and tube services – jobs for the unemployed! Bring back bus conductors, train guards, and staff all stations fully!
  • Immediate massive reduction in fares! Free travel for children, pensioners, the unemployed!
  • For an integrated public transport system, planned for the needs of workers, passengers and the environment.
  • Not apolitical rank and filism, but a programmatic fight to defeat our misleaders! For class-struggle leadership in the unions!
  • No to privatisation! Renationalise the railways! Forward to expropriation of the capitalists and the construction of a socialist society!
  • Break with New Labour traitors! Union funds only for pro-working class candidates! For a workers’ party funded by the unions to fight for a workers’ government!