In December, EWS announced plans to cut 15% of its workforce, across all grades. EWS - recently taken over by German state-owned railway company DeutscheBahn and renamed DB Schenker - is to shed 530 jobs.
It is placing many workers on ‘zero-hours’ contracts, an appalling set-up under which you are available for work from 7am to 7pm (or 7pm to 7am), but get paid just £5 for having your phone on and wages only if you are actually called in to work.
In February, RMT began a ballot of its 700+ members for strike action to demand no compulsory redundancies and a stop to zero-hours contracts and regrading. Everyone should vote Yes.
The unions should run a high-profile industrial and political campaign against these job cuts and for a massive transfer of freight from road to rail, with rail freight brought back into public ownership. EWS/DB Schenker jobs are being lost under the pretext of loss of trade, a particular blow being steel industry giant Corus (the former British Steel) cancelling a large part of its business with the company. But if a fraction of the freight that is carried on lorries were carried on trains instead, the jobs could be saved. The environment would benefit too, with pollution and road congestion being reduced. Such a campaign would win the support of environmental campaigners and large sections of the general public.
RMT’s first response to the announcement denounced EWS’s plans, and rightly called on the government to intervene to stop the job losses. But other than lobbying Ministers, it pledged the union only to help ensure the redundancy process was applied fairly. As one-to-one discussions with redundancy-threatened workers began in January, it seemed that the unions were going along with this, albeit with a heavy heart. RMT’s ballot may now signal a fightback, although for the limited demand of no compulsory redundancies.
Worse, it seems that ASLEF is lobbying other TOCs - in the first place, Northern Rail - to take on redundant DB Schenker drivers. Even if this begging succeeds, it will just dissipate drivers’ willingness to fight job cuts at EWS/DB Schenker, and block promotion chances of other grades in Northern Rail. ASLEF seems content to reduce itself to the role of redundancy brokers - helping management to make job losses a little less painful, for selected grades only. This is not trade unionism as we know it.
Ironically, while the British state refuses to take EWS or any other rail company into public ownership, its privatisation set-up allows a company owned by another state to do so! EDF, owned by the French state, now owns chunks of the British rail industry too. But the issue is not the nationality of the new owners, and our fight is not helped by digs at DeustscheBahn that play up to anti-German stereotypes, such as RMT News’ headline about DeutscheBahn’s ambition for ‘world domination’. As workers will testify, former owners EWS (English Welsh Scottish) were awful bosses to work for too.