Great Britain: now, rail workers’ strike. Then, a general strike!

– At the beginning of pandemic, when rail companies struggled to meet their ends, the government bailed them out. At the same time, they demanded that the whole industry implemented a 2-billion-pound worth package of cuts. Basically, they said: we give you the money, you fire people. A very neoliberal strategy of nationalising the bailout and financing it with people’s job – says Nick Oung, a rail engineering apprentice, member of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ Union (RMT) since May 2021, and a Marxist organised with the International Marxist Tendency since 2017, interviewed by Wojciech Łobodziński.

How could you describe the situation in the British rails before the RMT’s strike? How did it all begin? 

The conflict has been going on for two years, a bit longer when it comes to the pay question. Rail workers have seen their wages frozen for the last three years. The situation has been the same in all public sectors, and with rising inflation it is felt by the majority of the British population. The other part of it, in the last two years, since the pandemic, the Tory party has been trying to force cuts into the railway industry. They bailed it out at the beginning of pandemic, when companies struggled to meet their ends, but at the same time they demanded that the whole industry has to implement a 2-billion-pound worth package of cuts. And it has seemed to only increase.

So on one hand they did a bailout, and on the other they demanded cuts?

Yes, pretty like that. It was basically an exchange. They said: if we give you the money, you do those cuts. It was a very neoliberal strategy of nationalising the bailout and financing it with people’s jobs. It was a direct attack on the workers. 

Nick Oung on a picket line. Source: personal archive.

What is the relation between private and public when it comes to the railway industry? 

The railways were privatised in the 90’. But very quickly they began to deteriorate, and the biggest problem was the condition of rail infrastructure itself. The maintenance was cut basically through that privatisation and the series of fatal accidents took place.

Were workers killed? Or passengers?

Both. Those were quite dramatic accidents. Therefore, the rail infrastructure had to be taken back into the public hands. Yet they do not call it a nationalised industry, even though the responsible company works under the department of transport. So the network is in public hands, and I work there in the rail maintenance. Everything else is privatised like train operating companies and freight operating companies and rolling stock companies. The last one is the parasite: they make 500 million pounds per year from leasing the trains to the train operating companies, which only operate the trains, and provide services. But all infrastructure and maintenance is done by Network Rail. 

So you are a state worker? 

Yeah, even though the government would not use this term.

How would the government call it then? 

I do not really know, but I think they would call it something like an agency worker maybe? They try to say that it is not nationalised. And now

the services are getting worse and worse, and the passenger fees are rising continually. No one is getting a better deal, so they had to renationalise some of the train operating companies already.

And it comes under one umbrella which is called Straight British Rail. But even then they will not say that part of the rail has been renationalised.

So the RMT members work in all of these companies?

Yes, and so RMT represents all sectors of workers in the rail industry, train drivers, managers and so on. But the bulk of the union are the low grades of rail workers: people who work in services on the trains and on the station, and also railway maintenance workers. The other union in the railways is ASLEF which organises exclusively train drivers. It is a craft union if you like, and they are joining us in the next round of walkouts. The last one is TESA union who organises mostly management, so higher layers of the companies workers. 

So when did you decide to go on strike?

The idea has been around for more than a year. The public discussion started in December. That’s when I heard for the first time about it from the RMT leadership. That started to intensify. The rail ballot was launched in May, and it was won straightforwardly. 

The workers of Paddington stations are on strike, too. Source: Nick Oung’s archives.

If I understood Mike Lynch’s comments on TV correctly, first there were a dispute and negotiation. What was the stance of the government then? Lynch called it lies, lies, lies… 

The main demand in the negotiation was no redundancies. But there are two demands central to the strike. There is the pay question. Which is very important not only for the members: it also reaches to the other parts of the labour movement. Other sectors are fighting for better wages too, including civil servants, nurses, teachers and postal workers. But a ban on compulsory redundancies is on top of our demands. We do not want to lose our jobs. It is pretty obvious why.

When some of us lose their jobs, there will be more work for those who stay, and so it would also become less safe. Mike Lynch has been negotiating those demands together with the rest of RMT leadership. The problem with that dispute is that technically we have one big strike, but fifteen different industrial disputes. One dispute over this sector, on the other sector, so it is really very complicated.

The bosses and the Tory government have been demanding that those cuts have to be implemented. Tories have really pushed the companies into not doing any steps back when it comes to the cuts. So that is what Mike Lynch called lies.

The Tories in their general propaganda wanted to depict trade unions as not wanting to talk at all, like a terrorists of some sort. In reality, the union leadership had been demanding negotiations for months without being heard. Now we do not have any other option than to strike. Mike Lynch also demanded that if the Tories are pushing the bosses of railway companies, the union leadership should actually meet with them, that is, with the goverment and the Conservative party, not with some delegated private bosses, who are pushed under the wall by them. 

Still, they were right when they said that you flammed up the UK with your massive strike. Logically, it should be the best occasion for the Labour politicians for an offensive. The very definition of Labour says they should support strikers, or more generally, the working class, in everything they do. Where in all of that is the Labour party, have you got any support from them? 

You would think that it should be like that. But there is a big problem when it comes to this party. It is divided. Even now when Starmer has a party firmly under his control, the vast majority of MPs who support them, still rely on the working class people.

Starmer, of course, did not say they did not support the strike, but he has been saying that any MPs that go at the picket line will be dismissed from his post. He is trying to gatekeep the strikers, saying that the strikes are horrible. He does not want to be seen by the media and ruling class that is behind him as a militant labour leader. Thus he cannot be an active supporter of the strike.

Starmer said that he is on nobody’s side, and I guess he will side with the bosses when the time comes, when the time of his rule over Britain will come.

As you can see, a lot of MPs still remain genuine supporters of the working class, and they have supported us even by visiting picket lines. Some of them criticised Starmer’s stance. Even for some of his supporters it would be too politically difficult for them to not support us. Their electoral base sometimes is made up of our comrades. We are sometimes supported economically by the local bureaus of the Party. Everything depends on the local MPs. They have to defy his orders, so there is one Labour Party, and there is also another Labour Party. 

A lot has changed after Corbyn…

The party has lost thousands of members, and the numbers are still declining. And there is no horizon of change. This leadership is not going to support the working class, and that’s pretty obvious. But the RMT said that with or without the support of the party they are going to fight, alongside other unions like civil service unions, nurses unions, teachers unions and so on. He said: for those who want to support us, we are not going to wait for you. You have to decide.

That is the stance of the RMT, and I guess it will be the stance of other unions when the fall comes. Most of them are preparing for strikes for the beginning of September. And all of them want to bring politics back to the people. No matter which party is going to create a new government. 

So you are saying there is no political party that can represent the workers of Great Britain? 

Yes, I would even say that the situation is more dire. People are fed up with the whole system, just like in France. And we need drastic change of our political system. The wave will come out of the Trade Union Congress. First we need to transform TUC, consolidate left-wing there from various different groups representing different parts of the unionised working class.

How does it function right now?

We have various groups and factions in different unions. The RMT has its left wingers, the UNISON also has them and so on. Those factions are made up from different political activists hence their positions might be slightly different, however we can unite those different organisations on common demands. The contemporary crisis refers to everyone, literally every working person. The hatred towards cuts and politics of austerity on the backs of ordinary people have resulted in anger and dissatisfaction.

Most importantly, when or if Keir Starmer becomes the prime minister, he has already shown his true colours, likely he will try to implement austerity politics and not revoke anti-union laws that limit sectors of working people from going on strike. And the TUC has the potential power to challenge him on that. Whether through propaganda or agitation, or through actual physical means, general strike action. 

So I guess that is what this broad unionised left has to achieve? 

Yes, the TUC for far too long has not been the organisation that it is supposed to be hence the engine and muscle of the Labour Party. We have to once more refer to our original aims, the representation of the working people. We could hear Frances O’Grady, the former leader of the TUC, saying that: “Why the Tory government can’t be like they used to be, they used to bit less nazi!” I am of course paraphrasing that. But the point is that those leaders have no fighting spirit. 

Just like in Poland. We have no political leaders on the horizon. The changes will be happening in the street.

I guess that is a popular feeling across Europe. Elites in the unions, in politics have not touched grass for far too long. They are just waiting to get into an agreement with the bosses, and in our case, with the Tory government. We need the new generation of fighting leaders like Mike Lynch, that’s need to be done. 

So tell me more about the trade unions that are right now preparing for the strikes, which one of them are doing that? 

So first of all the most important strike that’s coming is the strike of the NEU – National Education Union – that has been threatening to go on a big strike since the beginning of this year. During the RMT strike they declared that they are going to vote on that in September, so at the beginning of the school year. The next one I guess, should be UCU – University and Colleges Union – have been on strike a couple of times over the last several years, without any succes, thanks to no support from the Labour Party and the TUC. The strikes have to be massive from the beginning. All of this sort of union leadership, which has been hesitating for the last months or years, is now thinking: our members can see what good can come after national action, we will follow the RMT. 

And of course there is going to be a strike of the civil servants? 

Yeah, which means all people who work in administration, all big-government departments. They are completely underpaid. Also there is going to be a strike in the private sector, thanks to the actions of the CWU – Communication Workers Union – in BT Group. That is going to affect call centres, telecommunication hubs. Even the workers of the Royal Mail are going for a ballot. So that’s really huge.

Also somewhere there are unions of NHS staff? 

Yes, especially nurses are very active. But the problem is that NHS stuff is dispersed among different unions. But those unions are going to strike at some point. After Brexit this was already known that it was just a matter of time. They have to just take their time since the organisational problems.  

So to sum up, teachers, schools, universities and colleges are going on strike, civil servants, Royal Mail, telecommunication sector also, police and prison service I have heard are also organising, alongside with NHS. The RMT is already on strike.

Roughly, the whole country!

Yes! It is going to be a general strike at some point. Even police and prison service is full of anger, since also they were victims of Tories cuts. Nobody calls it a developing national strike. But in fact it’s going to be one!

And we started that, when rail workers went on strike, you could see people from all around different sectors of the economy coming to us, cheering us up, and saying that they want to follow our example. A lot of this was achieved because of stubborness and willingness to fight of our people, with Mike Lynch at the frontline in the media.

Let’s hope this wave of strikes won’t be stopped and working people will take back the country and economy! 

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