It is a seldom acknowledged benefit of rail privatisation that for ten years we have not had a national rail strike. This happy situation will come to an end at 6.30 p.m. next Tuesday when, in the middle of the rush hour, 15,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) walk out on a 24-hour strike. In the best traditions of union militancy, the strike has been timed to inflict the maximum collateral damage to the general public with the minimum loss of pay to railwaymen. As far as commuters are concerned, the rail system will have been rendered useless for two whole days. It is even more irritating to learn that some of the railway workers who took part in the ballot for the strike — which the RMT’s leaders won by just 56 votes — declared on their forms that they work at signal boxes which in fact closed several years ago. If electoral malpractice can be proved, the strike, of course, will be illegal.
Needless to say, the RMT’s stated case for the strike is feeble. Virtually no private company these days is prepared to offer the final-salary pension scheme which the RMT demands: to commit their pension funds to paying a set level of benefits in 50 years’ time will lay them open to the kind of burden that felled Equitable Life. The RMT also demands the return of free travel for its members. Yet rail workers have received extremely generous pay rises since privatisation, partly in recognition that new recruits no longer enjoy the travel perks of the BR days.
Yet the RMT does have one valid point. Justifying his strike earlier this week, Bob Crow, the union’s general secretary, explained that he and his members have been partly motivated by the decision of Network Rail’s directors to award themselves bonuses equivalent to 24 per cent of their salaries for ‘financial efficiency’.