Striking train drivers have “never seen anything like” the level of public support they are currently enjoying, a union official has said.
RMT president Alex Gordon told Novara Media, “We’re quite used to being unpopular because, when we take strike action, it affects people’s daily lives.”
But the current train strikes are different, he said, “We’ve got the public on our side, as there’s a growing tide of anger in this country.
“Everyone is being faced with the appalling consequences of the crisis in the cost of living, the crisis in the economic system and the crisis in capitalism.”
Novara Media spoke to Gordon at Euston Station, as he travelled between picket lines in London on Wednesday. Passing buses blasted their horns in support of the picket and members of other unions came by to show their solidarity.
‘The rolling stock companies contribute absolutely no additional value whatsoever, but they take a rent on every ticket that you buy.’@RMTunion President @alexgordon4me on the rail industry’s biggest secret: the “ludicrous” rolling stock companies. pic.twitter.com/XnasejDTSj
RMT members were taking part in their fourth day of strike action over pay and conditions. Two more strike days are planned in August. In an opinion poll from Opinium on 26 June, 45% of the respondents backed the strike compared to 37% who opposed it.
“It’s not possible for our enemies in the Murdoch press to isolate the RMT from the rest of the working class and the rest of the movement,” said Gordon.
“We are part of an awakening. In this country, young workers and older workers are saying it’s about time somebody stood up and said, we’re not taking it anymore.”
In his role as president, Gordon is the union’s most senior lay officer, chairing its executive meetings and acting as custodian of its rules and constitution.
“We’re very pleased to see that our comrades in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) will be taking action on Friday and Monday, and Aslef will be taking strike action on Saturday this week. We need to bring those struggles together and make them as powerful as we possibly can.”
The government and Conservative party have reacted to the strikes by threatening workers’ rights. Last week, the law changed to allow businesses to replace striking staff during an industrial dispute, with business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng saying what was a criminal offence was now “an option for business.” Tory leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have said that they’d ban strikes on essential services like the railways.
Gordon warned that the candidates for prime minister are competing over who can be the most anti-union. “There is an arms race in who can be the most hostile to organised working class people and trade unionists,” he said.
“When you hear what they’re saying about the new law to allow businesses to replace striking staff during industrial disputes – that’s in breach of the International Labour Organisation conventions, which the UK is signatory to.”
The RMT is pushing for a pay rise of 7 to 8% to compensate both for inflation and previous pay freezes. Network Rail’s current offer – 4% in the first year with a possible 4% in the second year – represents a real terms pay cut. The offer is also contingent both on the RMT accepting a raft of “reforms” – which the RMT says are really just cuts – and the union meeting “modernisation” targets.
“Our members are getting hit hard, and they’re not prepared to take that anymore,” he said.
“The RMT [is] pointing to the profits and the outrageous salaries of the top bosses in the rail industry. It is an absolute embarrassment, and they should be ashamed. The overall profits in the trend in the rail sector were in excess of £600 million in the year 2021. This is a hugely profitable and lucrative business. It’s awash with money.
“People like Andrew Haines, and the other senior directors in public owned companies, are creaming eye-watering salaries at the same time as they’re squeezing our members.”
But the strikes are about more than just pay, Gordon said.
“There is a wholesale assault by this Tory government on public expenditure and on public transport.
“The government are trying to cut around £4 bn pounds from public transport expenditure, with £2 bn of that being ripped directly out of the mainline railway. We’re facing massive cuts, and that has a real impact on safety, on services and on jobs.
“They want to get rid of guards on trains, so that passengers will effectively be travelling on metal tubes with one member of staff at the front of the driver, and nobody else to help them. It’s a massive deterioration in a railway service that’s been proposed, and our members are not going to collude in this vandalism.”
Gordon said the railways should be taken into democratic public ownership: “The biggest secret in the rail industry is the rolling stock companies. You have three companies that own almost all the trains that run on Britain’s railways, and those three companies are owned by financial institutions, banks, and foreign banks.
“They charge a leasing fee to train operating companies to use those trains to run services. They contribute no added value whatsoever to railways, but they take a rent on every ticket that you buy.
“Every ticket you buy is going to fund a rolling stock company who are simply renting the train to the company that you’re buying the ticket from. It’s a ludicrous, insane and wasteful and corrupt way of running a railway. You can’t reform this system, instead it’s got to be swept away. We need a publicly owned and democratically controlled public transport system in this country.”
Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.