It’s time to reward the people who do the work in our country

“On 17 October 2000, I was having a normal day working as a host, then my life changed.  The train I was working on went over a damaged line at more than 100mph and it shattered beneath us, hurling everyone everywhere. As the train split, I was flung around like a rag doll, desperately trying to find something to hold on to. I’ll never forget those terrifying minutes,” writes a rail worker who now works in an LNER ticket office. 

Four people died needlessly that day because proper maintenance had not been carried out.  The laws of physics make no distinction between staff and passengers.  Cuts to safety endanger everyone. 

The RMT has stated they want to negotiate a deal with the employers.  They’re not even asking for a real pay rise – they’re just asking for pay to keep pace with inflation.  A deal would also involve working conditions, the right to time off, protection from compulsory redundancy, and proper training standards.  But government won’t let the employers settle. 

Network Rail hasn’t raised pay since 2019.  Staff shortages are rife, low pay will make it worse.  We’ve got one of the safest railways in Europe – for now.  But it could quickly become one of the most dangerous.  Network Rail’s plans would pay some safety-critical staff about £22,000, including nights and unsocial work, and using their own vehicles and fuel to reach different sites they’d have to work at. 

The train operating companies (TOCs) are all private companies, although around 70% of them are owned in part or in full by foreign governments.  The rail industry makes £100’s of millions in profits.  I’m pleased that German passengers have a good rail system.  I just don’t think our ticket-buyers and underpaid workers should pay for it. 

I’ve been saying for years that Britain needs to be a high-wage, high-skill economy.  Last year, the Prime Minister said the same thing.  I’m not a Professor of Logic at Oxford University, but I reckon a high-wage economy means paying people high wages. 

Strip out the erosion of workplace pensions, and real wages – what you can buy after inflation – have fallen in the UK over the past fifteen years.  They’re now being gobbled up by unchecked inflation.  Yet the UK’s top ten billionaires’ wealth has increased from £48 billion in 2009 to £182 billion in 2022.  An increase of 281%.  It’s time for a wealth tax. 

Wage claims follow inflation, they don’t cause it.  58.7% of the current inflation spike is caused by profiteering.  8.3% from increased labour costs – and that’s mainly staff shortages.  The rest is supply chain disruption. 

So that’s the economics.  But what about the morality? 

The tired old media lines of yesteryear have been wheeled out to attack workers defending their livelihoods.  “Union barons”  “ordering 40,000 members to down tools” “causing misery”.  Tory MPs blaming rail workers for delays to NHS treatment is pure gaslighting.  

It’s a democratic ballot.  When unions strike, they give four weeks’ notice of a ballot and two weeks’ notice of the strike.  I sit on the Transport for the North Committee, and the Rail North Committee.  We’ve told government for years that the system is crumbling.  All they have to do to stop the strikes is turn up and negotiate. 

Strikes are not the weapons of billionaires.  Or the people who make the laws.  Who give £millions to their mates in dodgy PPE deals.  Who have offshore bank accounts.  Strikes are the weapon of last resort for working people seeing their real wages fall and the safety and sustainability of their industry crumbling before their eyes.  It’s the railways now.  But teachers, NHS workers, postal workers, airport check-in staff, telecoms engineers, and even criminal barristers are actively considering industrial action. 

Ministers were quick to publish videos of themselves clapping for carers on Thursday nights through lockdown.  Now it’s time to reward the people who do the work in our country. 

When billionaires want to advance their agenda, they do it through the newspapers they own. If no one is listening to workers, industrial action is their only tool to protect their livelihoods and our public services.  I stand with the RMT and so should the Labour Party. 

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 27 June 22