The commencement of talks under the aegis of the "Rail Industry Recovery Group" (RIRG), a body convened by the Department for Transport including Network Rail and the Train Operating Committees, has prompted a somewhat varying set of reports.
The Guardian would have us believe that the talks are a prelude to cuts, saying an "agreement" has been signed by the four main rail unions (RMT, Aslef, TSSA, and Unite), according to which "voluntary redundancies will be sought throughout the railway to close the funding gap from an 80% decline in passenger revenue since the start of the pandemic."
In other words - a fait accompli. The purpose of the talks is to manage the cuts, not negotiate on whether there should be any at all.
RMT's own press release clarifies matters somewhat. The union says that, although it feels it has to participate in the RIRG, it will be doing so on the basis of promoting the following demands:
- Job Security Agreement to cover the whole rail industry that defends jobs and maintains pay, conditions and agreements. We reiterate our policy of No Compulsory Redundancies.
- Reward our members for their work and commitment now and in the future, we oppose pay cuts and do not accept a pay freeze.
- Defending and improving members' pensions.
- Ending casualisation, outsourcing, bogus self-employment and zero hours contracts. Bring in-house vital activities such as security, cleaning, rail catering, fleet engineering and infrastructure renewals.
- An industry-wide collective agreement that places all rail workers under a common contract and undertaking with restoration of full travel facilities and entitlement to enter and remain in the Railways Pension Scheme for all staff.
- Pursuing our policy agenda, including an integrated publicly owned railway as a solution.
RMT says it is "not committed to acceptance to any of the particular measures, changes or proposals set out or that may arise in the process."
The whole basis of the "Recovery Group" is an attempt by the Tory government and rail industry bosses to bind the unions to a cross-class, "all-in-this-together" model of "recovery", whereby all of us - bosses and workers - have to "make sacrifices" and "tighten our belts". We know what this rhetoric means: bosses retain their high salaries, and workers bear the brunt.
Unless a union was in a position to ballot for national action immediately, boycotting the talks would most likely have been a futile gesture. But they must not be allowed to become a quagmire in which unions get bogged down by arguments - from bosses or conservative bureaucrats inside unions - that we can't possibly begin ballots for actions whilst RIRG talks are still ongoing.
Seeing the way that the press is already presenting this as the trade unions collaborating with job cuts, the unions will need more than clarifying statement to prove that this is not the case. They will need high-profile campaigning and assertive industrial action. Without this, the RIRG will become a trap for our unions and therefore for us.
It would be a mistake to wait for the cuts to start. Instead, we can boost our chances of defending our jobs and wages by beginning preparations for ballots in every rail industry company affected by proposed job cuts and the pay freeze. And our most effective starting position is not opposition merely to compulsory redundancies, but opposition to all job cuts, by any means. Deleting the job of someone who has taken voluntary redundancy means depriving of a future worker of employment, and increasing workload for those remaining.
An informed and empowered rank and file can keep our unions' feet to the fire and maximise our chances of success. A good start to this would be for all the unions involved in the RIRG to report to members what was discussed immediately after every meeting of that body.