Network Rail Signallers - Why The Ballot Was Lost

Submitted by Off The Rails on 26 May, 2008 - 5:00

Network Rail signallers’ hopes of a decent pay rise took a kicking when a majority of RMT members voted No to strike action. Given that the very same workers had voted decisively to reject NR’s woeful pay offer, the vote against strikes cannot be because people were happy with what was on the table. So why did this happen?

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A lot of newer staff think Network Rail is a great employer, often because they have come directly from an even worse job or from the dole queue, as NR is recruiting externally to some grades that used to be filled by internal promotion only. No wonder external recruitment is such a popular idea amongst employers.

NR also did very good propaganda job, far better than the union’s. Their ‘Connect’ system has put a screen in every signal box broadcasting to staff. Chief Executive Iain Coucher even has his own blog. It reminds us of George Orwell’s 1984, when a large image of Big Brother looked over every room, telling you how good life is.

Connect is easy to use, bang up-to-date and effective – giving us updates on the pay issue far more promptly and often than RMT’s website does. It has a discussion forum (which, unlike RMT’s, is easy to log on to), which Network Rail uses to sound out opinion: it is a tool in their box to know what people are thinking and doing.

A key part of NR’s campaign was to warn us that if we were to strike we would lose our bonus. This scared people into voting no. NR even told us that the farcical over-runs at Christmas had made our bonuses even more vulnerable – even though that fiasco was nothing to do with signallers and everything to do with NR management! It left them with egg on their faces, but now they are using it against us.

The bonus system came in to replace our lost Railtrack shares. But although it seemed great when we first had it, it is now clear that it is such a powerful weapon in management’s hands that the union should never have agreed it. Last year, we saw Network Rail take away the bonus from Scottish signallers who went on strike in protest at the non-implementation of the shorter working week deal. The union’s battle against this outrageous action resulted in a ‘compromise’ whereby NR cut only part of the bonus. This meant that the union had conceded the principle: instead, we should stand firm and insist that no-one who strikes should lose more money than the pay for the strike days.

Signallers should not have let themselves be swayed by this combination of smooth words and threats from management. We should have stuck to our guns and voted to strike to win a better pay deal. After all, a bonus is a one-off: a decent pay rise is for life.

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The ‘no’ vote is also a result of a lack of faith in the union to see the campaign through to victory. There are still bitter memories of the 2006 dispute over pay and the 35-hour week, when the Grand Old Dukes of Unity House marched us up the hill only to march us down again, putting on strikes then calling them off, eventually settling for a not-very-good deal without giving us the chance to flex our muscles and take some action. This time round, union members feared losing money to win nothing: if they had been more confident in the union’s ability to win, then sacrificing the money would have seemed worth it.

The union also made a mistake in including both strikes and ‘action short of strikes’ on the ballot paper. This gave people a ‘soft option’ of voting no to strikes but yes to action short, creating the illusion that we can win without striking. We now have a mandate for action short but not for strikes. If we use this mandate wisely – with a thought-out strategy involving working to rule, banning overtime and ensuring relief signallers do not end up doing the work of those taking action – then we may yet win a better deal. But with strikes (and effective leadership), we could have won much more.

The law says you need separate mandates for strikes and for other forms of industrial action, but the unions should only conduct both ballots if it has a definite strategy of using both.

Network Rail signallers are potentially a very powerful workforce – we could stop the country’s railway if we got our act together. But, especially following this ballot result, non-members and the anti-union management feel confident and assertive, reviving all the age-old and pathetic excuses not to be in a union, such as “we’ll all get the pay rise anyway”. Those of us who are still committed to workers sticking up for ourselves rather than sucking up to the bosses need to learn the lessons of this ballot defeat, rebuild from the grass-roots and demand our union acts effectively in our interests.

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