Network Rail: Harmonsation and more

Submitted by Off The Rails on 22 September, 2008 - 11:46

The fight over Network Rail harmonisation stumbles on.

We had two weekend strikes, which were well-supported. The choice of dates caused a problem though. Lots of us work six-week rosters, and the two strike weekends were six weeks apart, so some people were on for all the days and lost a lot of money, while others were rostered off for the whole time so lost nothing. In some places, workers got round this by holding collections so those who were not striking put their hands in their pockets for those who were, so evening out the sacrifice. But this didn't happen everywhere. We also faced the threat from management of losing 15% of our bonus if we went on strike - a threat that served management well in defeating the signallers' strike ballot earlier this year, and which the union can not allow to happen again.

Next, we were going to have a four-day strike, but the union cancelled it because management promised talks. Off The Rails has long doubted the wisdom of doing this - you might call off a strike for talks about a definite, improved offer, but not just for talks per se. So it may have been a mistake to call it off. The last bank holiday weekend - plus the weekends before and after - was our big opportunity to hit the company hard with strikes.

This year's strikes happened because RMT's Engineering Grades Conference - a big, representative, rank-and-file event - insisted on action. It was a much smaller body, the Executive, that called the action off, and it only called the area reps to a meeting after it had made the decision. At the reps' meeting there was little dissent about it being called off, with some reps saying that it was tactically quite smart to do so at the last minute when Network Rail had already cancelled most of the weekend's work. One region's reps argued for more strike action, and everyone was agreed that the company's offer was rubbish.

There have been two lots of talks since then. RMT has sent out a list of what management say they are offering, with the union's view that this might form the basis of a settlement, but is unacceptable as it stands and there are points we need movement on. As of 11 September, management are now offering another round of talks at which they will table a 'final offer'. But we have to ask ourselves: what pressure are we putting on them to ensure that the 'final offer' is anything more than superficially different from the current offer? Not only do we have no further strikes named, but the union leadership has not really run a campaign around the workplaces in support of its demands. The leadership look like they have run out of ideas.

We need to remember why Network Rail came to the union this year more willing to hold genuine talks than previously. It was because of the over-run fiascos at Christmas and Easter. They relied heavily on contractors, many of whose workers simply did not turn up. Hardly surprisingly, the idea of spending the festive periods with friends and family was rather more attractive than spending it lineside in the cold. But Network Rail has no comeback against contractor staff, so now wants to rely a little more on its own permanent employees, so has to address our concerns about harmonisation.

But what management really want is a 'Martini workforce' - any time, any place, anywhere. They think we need a 'have tools, will travel' mentality, there for them to gather up and send to any part of the country to do any job. They want to multi-skill everyone: so they will have you litter-picking one day, tightening nuts and bolts the next, even if your job is to repair S&T kit. Management hate the idea of workers being on standby, doing nothing - after all, that's their job!
Linked to this, management want to move away from fixed teams into task-specific teams, creating pools of staff to allocate to different jobs at different times - it means 'flexibility' for management, job losses for us.

Of all the union's demands for the harmonisation process, the only one that management have conceded is that allowances (eg, London, South East, etc) should be same as for signallers. We should be prepared for Network Rail's 'final offer' to be crap, and for union officials to dress it up as much better than it actually is. We must be ready to fight again.

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Also in Network Rail's pipeline is a move towards a system of 'predictive failures'. A lot of S&T work is routine maintenance of signals, points, telephones etc. The company wants us to do this only on the basis of recorded failures. For example, if they reckon that a telephone fails once every six months, then we will maintain it only every six months, instead of three months as present. It's pretty plain to see that this will lead to a massive increase in failures, as equipment fails to abide by Network Rail's predictions and disobediently breaks ahead of schedule.

In the '80s and '90s, the car industry brought in the 'just in time' system, where parts where not held in stock but were instead brought into the factory just before they were put into the cars. The 'predictive failures' system is the rail maintenance equivalent of 'just in time' - and like that, will lead to job losses.

We will also be affected by the move towards in-cab signalling via satellite (satnav for trains), under which lineside signals will be scrapped. This is to be trialled on the Norfolk rural lines, and could cause big job losses if applied nationally. Some of these job losses would be on Network Rail, but many more would be in the contractor companies. This in turn, though, would encourage Network Rail to attack our pay and conditions.

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The coming attacks are even more reason for rank-and-file workers to demand that the union becomes more effective.

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