Rob Ottway is a railway worker in eastern England.
Tell us a little bit about the work you do.
I work on the railway as signalling technician in a team of three. It’s shift work — 24/7, 364 days a year. We sometimes have quiet times, but these are becoming rarer as management cut staff and don’t fill empty posts. The work is safety-critical and there is a lot of pressure on us to get faults solved quickly.
Do you and your workmates get the pay and conditions you deserve?
Not really. The pay is regarded by most as adequate but no more. The amount of overtime on offer was huge but lately this has come down. I should point out that this is a historic thing. The railway was, until recently, a very low-wage industry and you worked your basic hours, then worked any overtime which was available almost as a Pavlovian response. This is now, thankfully, falling off as a younger generations come into the job.
How has the recent political situation, both in terms of the economic crisis and the new government and its cuts, affected your work?
It has had more of a threat value than any real effects so far. Management have recently forced through huge changes to our terms and conditions along with a re-allocation of staff. The threat was “accept this or get much worse later on”.
What do people talk about in your workplace? How easy is it to “talk politics on the job”?
It’s very mixed. People know that there are hard fights coming up but are cynical about how we can fight back and more important, win. The older hands keep harking back to the good old days before privatisation but keep forgetting just how bad it was. All in all, the government is thoroughly hated and people are looking for a change.
What are your bosses like?
Bad, and getting worse. With the new terms and conditions coming on top of a re-organisation, they are stressed out like never before, along with some newer whiz kids with no idea about how we work but who still want to make a name for themselves. Again, the older ones have rose-tinted specs on with regard to the old managers. A manager’s bonus and pay is determined by things like sickness and accident figures and they have taken to organising taxis to get people into work even though they cannot do anything when they get there. Lower management forget that they are just numbers like us.
Is there a union in your workplace, and does it do a good job?
Yes, there is — the RMT. The staff reps are doing OK but fighting with one hand tied.
The recent changes in terms and conditions were allowed to go through with very little organised fight at a national level. I get really angry about how the dispute was handled.
We are trying, as a union branch, to get better at recruiting and organising. It is a long job. My department is better organised than others and we are trying to spread the best of what we do to other sections.
If you could change one thing about your work, what would it be?
Get control over management’s abuses of power.