In this contribution, an RMT rep looks back on the recent ScotRail dispute. We welcome additional contributions to the discussion.
When its AGM unanimously accepted a drastically improved pay offer from ScotRail on the eve of COP26, it came as the first major victory RMT's efforts to bust the rail industry/transport worker pay freeze. With protracted late-stage negotiations largely taking place between senior union officials and the Scottish Government, it also further exposed the rotten corporatist husk beneath that thin veneer of working-class empathy which the SNP seems increasingly less able to maintain.
RMT had submitted a pay claim on ScotRail in January 2020, and had been seeking negotiations ever since. Covid-19 came as an opportunity for the failing Abellio, already anticipating a premature end to its ailing franchise. It deferred pay talks on the basis of flatlining passenger numbers and revenue, and proceeded to eat away at staff terms and conditions including an agreement on an extra payment for rest day working, in the knowledge that an industrial response to such actions was practically impossible in the pandemic shutdown.
Meanwhile, as the infection rate soared and the risk to frontline workers grew, Abellio resisted changes to work practices and was slow to put proper safety measures in place outside the central hub stations. Internal communications saw attempts to browbeat staff, to be thankful that due to government funding nobody had to be placed on furlough. The initial aim of keeping rail services running for key workers through the lockdown gave way to the reality of trains and stations flooded with young people, a rise in anti-social behaviour and limited support from police.
Customer-facing staff became more and more aware that, for all the risk they were placing themselves and their families in, the company had little intention of prioritising their protection, much less recognising their efforts through their pay packets.
The push for a wider pay settlement grew from the solid action of conductors and ticket examiners in their rest day working payment dispute. For months, Sunday services had been almost completely halted, with a skeleton service in the central belt staffed by management "volunteers". Determination strengthened on the back of strong results in the six-month reballots in this dispute. The resolve of both Abellio and the Scottish Government were clearly impacted.
The leverage presented by COP26 had been massive. Described as the largest summit ever held on UK soil, and with much of the city centre road network closed to general traffic, the crippling of the rail network in and around the city and across Scotland would have monumental implications for the daily movement of thousands of diplomats, functionaries and campaigners and the overall efficacy of the conference. Rank and file members at Scotrail viewed this leverage as the opportunity to secure a meaningful pay settlement in the wake of their efforts and sacrifices through the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and voted accordingly to overcome anti-trade union legislation and secure a strong mandate for industrial action. RMT subsequently announced strikes covering the full 12 days of COP26, and requested further dialogue.
As the clock ticked down and the superficial efforts of Abellio to reach compromise floundered, Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government were forced into an active role in discussions. Minister for Transport Graham Dey often appeared out of his depth, unable to demonstrate a real grasp of the issues at the heart of the dispute. While COP26 would be overseen by the Westminster government, industrial action would have been presented as a massive embarrassment for Nicola Sturgeon’s administration by a broadly unsympathetic and unionist UK media.
RMT members at Scotrail had put themselves in a position of power, and held firm against an unchanging offer which imposed detrimental and nebulous efficiencies and productivity conditions in its second year, as well as a percentage increment which would likely be much lower than the rate of inflation come April 2022. Midway through the RMT AGM, a "final offer" was received from the employer. It proposed a two-year deal, with numerous productivity strings and efficiency savings in the deal's second year, the "price" for the concessions the employer was making in the deal's first year. ScotRail reps who were delegates to RMT AGM led the debate, making clear that the offer was unacceptable. The AGM voted to reject it, and strikes remained on.
The following day, the breakthrough offer came. It turned out the previous offer wasn't "final" after all. The persistence of the RMT negotiators and the resilience of the membership had won through. The entire second year of the deal, the hill on which Abellio and the Scottish Government had looked set to die, was removed, resulting in a one-year pay deal, extra payment for working through COP26 and a resolution to the rest day working dispute. Acceptance of the offer came through a unanimous vote of AGM delegates, and this victory for worker power quickly and inevitably received wide acclaim by the wider trade union movement.
Success in this dispute is not unqualified. The efficiency savings and productivity dropped from the deal will have to be dealt with head on in the months to come. Abellio and the Scottish Government have made clear their intention to "streamline" station staffing, to despecialise grades and to reduce and dilute safety briefings. RMT will need to regalvanise and maximise its membership for these battles.
Nevertheless, few would contest the outcome as anything other than a victory for organised labour, a staring-down of the Scottish Government and a failed Abellio, and a testament to the resilience of the RMT membership in continuing to fight on for something better while others settled for less.