June 20, 2022

Before you blame the rail workers, remember who kept us going during the pandemic

Collective is a strange word, isn’t it, one usually associated with the Left but Simon Clarke, chief secretary to the Treasury, who is being wheeled out to face down the pay demands of the RMT, likes using it. Workers need “collective discipline”, he said. In another interview, “We’re going to have to show collective society-wide responsibility.”

I am not sure who the “we” is here as it certainly is not his boss, Rishi Sunak, the richest man in government, or the Prime Minister and his wife, ever sniffing around for donations, or even MPs who never refuse pay rises.

No, “we” means the average working person who wants wage increases to match their ever-spiralling costs. This demand, that ordinary folk maintain their basic standard of living, is being spun as the cause of inflation.

Are we collectively to suck this up? Don’t mention Brexit, the war, the pandemic, food banks, stripped-down public services because of austerity. No, just do your two minutes of hate towards Bob Crow Mark Two – Mick Lynch – and go on about overpaid drivers, though this strike is about all rail workers whose average salary is £31,000.

Try not to know that the top 10 highest paid people at Network Rail get a total of more than £3.5 million a year while that company advertised for station control assistants on £20,000.

It’s going to be hard because this week will be one of individual frustration and misery. We will all become victims, as kids can’t take their exams and essential workers can’t get to work. My daughter is due to give birth. It’s the worst week for this to happen. Travel chaos is already everywhere. And isn’t this all going to set off another round of strikes: teachers, NHS workers, postmen – and barristers who actually are protesting about cuts to legal aid?

This will wear us down but no amount of Tory buck-passing is fair. This government has been in power a long time. The brokenness of this country cannot be blamed on a party that is not in government, despite the best efforts of Johnson rambling on about Corbyn.

The narrative is always the same: bad strikers disrupting the lives of people as if ordinary people are not workers themselves, as if working conditions have not improved precisely because of unions or “collective bargaining”. None of this meant much to me until I worked in the US, in low-paid shop jobs and as a waitress. I had done those jobs here, but got a lunch break; you were not “fined” for being late. Normal people in normal jobs got paid holiday, sick pay and some maternity leave.

How do you think much of what we take for granted came about? Through the power of organised labour.

I guess I had a glimpse of the future there, of zero hours contracts and no rights. It will be really hard to remember that this week in sweltering weather when I can’t get to where I need to be and we have to hear about the horrors of those Camillas who can’t get to Glasto.

Instead of looking back to the 1970s and 1980s, why not cast your mind back two years. Didn’t the pandemic show us exactly who kept the country going? Transport workers of all kinds, nurses, teachers, care workers and delivery drivers.

Have we forgotten the bus drivers who died in the first wave of Covid already? Are these the folk who must be made poorer year by year? Whatever happened to “levelling up”? Look to the top of government to see greed and wealth, a complete absence of any moral compass and a refusal to contemplate life for many. Obviously, I am dreading the strikes but they simply mirror this trickle-down chaos. There is no policy – just desperate, scrabbling self-preservation.

The government can demonise the RMT, refuse to talk to it and hope that public sympathy drains away. Yet, begrudgingly, we know this union is effective as sympathy does not pay wages. The Department for Transport is choosing not to get involved even though it set the rules for the train operating companies. It is refusing to negotiate, yet during the pandemic it bailed out these companies with huge subsidies and these companies now make at least £5 million a year in profit. Private profit has been preserved, while all risks have been nationalised.

Remember that in this week’s blame game. This disruption didn’t have to happen. The government is not neutral here.

Remember that when you don’t feel safe in a station because there are no staff around. Remember that when you keep being told it is somehow up to you as an individual to cope with inflation. Think collectively about what really matters.

Strikes are a real pain but at least see them for what they are: an organised response to organised greed.

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