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The government’s adversarial approach to rail strikes is only prolonging misery


3 min read

Sadly, the government’s approach to the national rail dispute has so far been unhelpfully adversarial despite ongoing misery for commuters, businesses and the striking workers themselves.

Media coverage suggests more conciliatory mood music from the government side. Let’s hope that is backed up in deeds during the latest talks with union leaders.

Trade unions are not the ideological enemy within but represent millions of everyday workers who have a right to defend their interests within a democratic and civilised society. We know strike action is a last resort. Nobody walks away readily from potential earnings during a cost of living crisis when families are struggling. But there comes a point when enough is enough. Year-on-year salary freezes followed by miserly offers amount to a huge real-terms pay cut when inflation is running at 10.7 per cent.

Undermining the right to withdraw one’s labour is authoritarian and not the British way

And it’s worth stressing these price rises are not driven by wage inflation but by rocketing energy and food costs plus, arguably, corporate profiteering too, as evidenced in a Unite the Union investigation.

Those seeking to undermine the union case have highlighted better-paid rail workers like train drivers who, let’s not forget, are responsible for the safety of hundreds of passengers every single day. But I was recently proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with railway security staff on the picket line outside London Victoria station who told me they earned just over £21,000 each – and with loved ones to support.

This is not just a fight for pay justice but for job security and decent working conditions with consequences for us all if the rail workers lose. There is talk of bringing in driver-only trains, with no physical presence on the platform or in carriages to ensure passengers’ health and safety –including lone females late at night.

There are reportedly plans to shut every ticket office in England, with again no thought for the impact on those elderly, disabled and vulnerable passengers who rely on traditional customer service. Indeed, we’ve all wished for a human-being when experiencing frustrations around touch screen ticketing technology.

Decimating the sector would also represent economic madness; laying off thousands of employees during a downturn creates a bigger draw on the welfare state and a lower tax-take from which to fund services.

As a former shop steward and a convenor for Unison, I can tell you there’s always a deal waiting to be struck. But that means government getting around the negotiating table with employees’ representatives to agree a compromise, not interfering in talks with the rail companies from behind the curtain.

Unfortunately, ministers have been pursuing a tired old agenda. Unwilling to contemplate fair pay for key workers who kept the country moving during Covid-19, the government has set up a model that ensures private train operators make a profit no matter what.

Take Avanti West Coast – rewarded for failure after being paid more than £17m in taxpayers’ money despite the abysmal service, as many of us know from bitter experience.

Now government wants to erode a key tenet of modern democracy by imposing statutory minimum service standards through yet more anti-strike legislation. Many will agree that undermining the right to withdraw one’s labour is authoritarian and not the British way.

In terms of the pay offer that would be fair in this case, that’s not for me as an MP to pluck out of the air. That’s about ministers seriously negotiating with trade union officials so a win-win compromise can be put to members. I hope an acceptable deal can be struck as soon as possible.


Mike Amesbury is the Labour MP for Weaver Vale.

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