‘No one wants strikes. But I’m happy to stand on the picket line’

‘Travel misery’ won’t be over in south London any time soon. After a week of disruption on rail and the Tube, with airline strikes still to come, ANDREW FISHER, pictured left, appraises next week’s industrial action on Croydon’s Trams

After a week of disruptive rail strikes, Croydon’s tram services will shut down next week as drivers walk out on strike on Tuesday and Wednesday in a dispute over pay.

Trams

No go: the tram network faces shut-down by strikes next Tuesday and Wednesday

Last month, tram drivers voted 99.2per cent to strike, on a ballot turnout of 86per cent.

The workers are represented by the ASLEF trade union, which represents drivers on the tram network, railways and London Underground.

ASLEF organiser Finn Brennan said after the ballot result, “The ball is now in management’s court. They can either make a fair offer or face the prospect of hard-hitting and drawn-out strike action.”

Tram drivers had not received an offer by the time of the ballot, and even now have only been offered a measly 3per cent – less than one-third of the current rate of inflation.

Tramlink is part of Transport for London, but is run by the private transport corporation First Group. The company saw its profits increase sevenfold last year, to £642million; its chief executive is paid around £800,000 a year.

The tram network which runs from Beckenham Junction at its most eastern point to Wimbledon to the west carries around 30million passengers a year, and in just two decades has established itself as a vital part of south London’s transport infrastructure. It is estimated that the tram system has taken between 2 to 3million car journeys off the roads each year.

After a week of rail strikes, the industrial action on Croydon’s trams is another signpost of how workers across industries are refusing to accept that they should pay with their wages for the economic failures of the government and the profiteering of the corporations who control so much of our lives.

Workers at BT and Royal Mail are currently being balloted for strike action, as are TSSA union members at Network Rail, in a widening of the rail strikes. And British Airways workers look set to walk out on strike next month unless a decent pay offer is received. Teachers and local government workers have also threatened to take action unless pay meets inflation.

‘Miltant’ and ‘Lefties’, obviously: barristers in the Criminal Bar Association are staging four weeks of strikes

If you want to understand how unexceptional is the action taken this week by the so-called “militant” RMT railworkers’ union, then consider the Criminal Bar Association, which represents barristers: they begin four weeks of strike action from next week.

In the last week, the National Education Union has written to the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, to say that they will ballot their members for strike action unless the government does substantially better than the 3per cent pay offer that it has so far recommended.

Meanwhile Christine McAnea, the general secretary of Unison, the local government and health workers’ union, told delegates at her union’s annual conference to go back to their branches and be “strike ready”.

What unites all these struggles is the modest demand that wages should keep pace with inflation. With CPI inflation already at 9.1per cent – or 11.7per cent if your preferred measure is RPI – then anything below that means a real-terms cut in living standards.

Many Conservative MPs and bosses have claimed inflation-matching rises are unrealistic or would be unaffordable. But are they?

Take, for example, the rail strike, where the RMT is arguing for inflation-proofed pay rises for its 40,000 members. Even during the lockdown last year, the rail companies pocketed £500million in profit. That’s enough to give every single worker who was balloted an extra £12,500 – which would be a 40per cent pay rise.

Of course, the profiteering companies could also forgo some of that surplus that they enjoy to cut fares for rail passengers. But Conservative MPs and their pliant media argue its only workers who have to tighten their belts, not the fat cat bosses or shareholders.

£500m profits: but the rail companies say that they can’t afford wage rises for workers nor fare cuts for passengers

Here in Croydon, we were due to be in the middle of three weeks of strike action by refuse collectors in the Unite union, but that was averted at the 11th hour when contractor Veolia ponied up an 11.9per cent increase for the lowest-paid staff.

Suddenly, faced with the prospect of well-supported strike action, the employer found they could afford a decent pay rise for their workers after all.

Another argument deployed against workers and their unions is that meeting these modest pay demands (to simply keep pace with inflation) would start a “wage-price spiral”, pushing up inflation. Yet wages rises is not what is driving inflation. Wages are currently lagging inflation – sucking demand out of the economy, and putting us on the brink of recession.

If anything, we need greater wage rises to boost the economy and give workers not just the means to make ends meet, but to spend in the economy and keep the retail, leisure and hospitality industries afloat. Retail sales fell again in May, and the sector is struggling as falling real wages mean people tightening their belts.

No one wants strikes, but if that’s what it takes for workers to get a fair deal, then I’ll be happy to stand on the picket lines with them.

Some of Andrew Fisher’s recent columns:

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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13 Responses to ‘No one wants strikes. But I’m happy to stand on the picket line’

  1. I sympathise. The RMT are just trying to protect jobs that won’t exist in a few years when driverless trains come in. Just like the Luddites of a few years ago… To be fair, at least they aren’t demanding that stokers be reinstated

    • Andrew Fisher says:

      RMT don’t represent drivers (that’s ASLEF) and it’s not what the strike is about. It’s about jobs (mostly those at risk on track maintenance and ticket offices), pay and terms & conditions

    • Chris Flynn says:

      If you think computers will be reliable enough to power driverless trains, you’re more optimistic about technology than me! Does anyone working in technology believe that is achievable?

      • Martin Rosen says:

        No, computers will never be reliable enough, but nor will human beings.

        We’re very close to driverless cars (I give it about 10 years to become the standard) and we’ve had driven driverrless aeroplanes for years already (although they’re still not always reliable enough to fly without pilots aboard) so I guess that driverless trains simply fall somewhere between those two.

        I can’t say I’m happy about that, but then I won’t be around to need to travel on any of them 😉

        • Nick Davies says:

          The DLA has been fully automated since it started in the 80s. There are no driver’s cabs. But every train has a staff member on board to close the doors, check tickets, take control if things go wrong.

      • Ian Kierans says:

        Driver less trains does not necessarily mean Computer led. They are and have been operated by people remotely via IT and engineering technology and at a reliability rate close (and sometimes exceeding) Driver operated trains.
        Look at the DLR also the Victoria Line has had the option of being operated remotely from a Central Location close to a Mainline station. but a driver is kept on the train for many reasons from training to customer perception.
        Despite Conservative and media reports about trades union issues fundamentally the role of a Train Operator is far more than ”turning the handle” and thankfully most people working on railways understand their value that customers/passengers/taxpayers reading slanted news do not.

        I have no problem with driver-less trains myself and they can be an option but more incidents are prevented by having a real life driver or that DLR term ”Captain” on board or travelling around. They make the railways and travelling safer and I would prefer having then than not.

  2. Nick Davies says:

    Driverless trains may come, indeed the Victoria line was conceived as a driverless system in the 1960s. But unstaffed trains never will happen, outside small systems like airport shuttles where there is always someone nearby in case of problems. Would you like to be taken ill on a train miles from anywhere with no-one around to help? Or simply be left behind on on unstaffed platform because the driverless train decided to close its doors and depart before everyone had got on? Or countless other happenings that only human intervention can sort out.

  3. Peter Kudelka says:

    It is disingenuous to say nobody wants a strike when many supporters of the current strikes are on record as wanting to dismantle the capitalist economy and will support any actions that further that aim. Mr. Fisher should acknowledge this alongside any arguments relating to the non political merits of the strikes.

  4. Lewis White says:

    Not surprising that several sectors of Public Service workers are seeking to maintain wage levels in the face of inflation.

    For years, workers in Local Government were awarded a 1% per year pay rise, during “austerity”. Meanwhile, the people who bought the train carriages get increased payments for doing absolutely nothing.

    Shareholders who bought the shares in the former Public utilities of Water, Sewerage, gas and electricity–which we all used to own– ditto.

    Barristers deserve fair pay, and indeed, decent living conditions. The actual upkeep of our courts buildings and estate is a total disgrace. The buildings are falling to bits. To work in some courts must be a depressing experience–working in semi-derelict surroundings. Not a setting for justice.

    The question is pay fairness…… it is wrong if some sectors of workers fall behind relative to others with higher profile and strike clout.

    And by the way, investment in maintaining schools and courts generates employment for builders, and profits for them and the materials and building products suppliers and manifacturers.

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