New anti-union law in UK takes aim at strike wave

The Tory government in the UK under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is mulling new anti-strike legislation that aims to crack down on the growing worker unrest spreading throughout the country. Faced with a historic cost-of-living crisis, workers across the UK made 2022 the busiest year for strikes and worker actions since the 1980s. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) have been at the forefront of Britain’s strike wave, as TRNN previously reported. They have been joined by countless workers across multiple industries, from university lecturers to mail carriers. The new anti-strike law in Parliament would force workers to cross their own picket lines to uphold a standard of “minimum service” while striking, effectively squashing the ability of workers to withhold their labor. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Gaz Jackson, RMT Regional Organizer for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, to discuss the strike wave and the Sunak government’s repressive measures.

RMT National Dispute Fund

Post-Production: Adam Coley


TRANSCRIPT

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. The Real News is an independent, viewer-supported, nonprofit media network, which means we don’t take corporate cash, and we don’t do ads. So we need each one of you to invest in our work so we can keep bringing you coverage of the voices and stories you care about most. So please head on over to therealnews.com/support and become a monthly sustainer of our work today. It really makes a difference.

Following decades of austerity politics and shameless corporate plunder, facing a historic cost of living crisis for working people and unprecedented political turmoil roiling the halls of government, workers across the United Kingdom have been standing up and saying enough is enough. Back in the summer, for my podcast, Working People, I had the honor of speaking with a group of members and officers of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, or the RMT, in the UK about the targeted strike actions rail workers were taking to address the systemic issues that, much like the railroad workers have been facing here in the United States, have led to declining quality of life for rail workers and declining quality of service for rail passengers, all while ensuring massive profits for rail companies.

Since we recorded that conversation, the RMT and its members have waged more strike actions, with the most recent two-day work stoppage occurring this past week, and the ground has continued to shake as tens of thousands of workers in other industries have hit the picket line in recent months, from university lecturers and posties working for the Royal Mail to construction workers and nurses. The Tory government, for its part, now led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, is continuing its efforts to fight this incredible wave of working class unrest, not by addressing the cataclysmic issues that have immiserated the lives and livelihoods of working people, but by attacking their right to strike and attempting to force workers back into subservient.

As Ronan Burtenshaw writes at the Tribune, “2022 saw the greatest number of strike days in Britain since the early 1980s. This wave of resistance has inspired millions, but it has also led to a fierce backlash from the government. In addition to another round of austerity, their response now involves a new round of anti-union laws designed to impede the growing movement and prevent workers looking to industrial action as a solution to the cost of living crisis. The proposed laws are Draconian. Under the legislation, trade unions would have to ensure that a predefined, quote, ‘minimum service’ was maintained throughout any strike, seriously limiting the impact of industrial action.”

“In addition, it is proposed that named workers will be required to work by companies regardless of whether they wanted to strike or not. If trade unions do not encourage these workers to cross their own picket lines during strikes, the unions could find themselves liable for all losses suffered by companies in the course of these actions.” To talk about all of this and more, I’m honored to be joined today by Gaz Jackson, calling in from across the pond. So Gaz worked on the rails for 15 years as a train guard and now serves as the RMTs regional organizer in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Gaz, thank you so much for joining us today on The Real News, man. I really appreciate it.

Gaz Jackson: Good afternoon. Any time.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. It’s been real exciting to see your face on social media. I know you’ve been doing the media rounds, and you’ve been kicking, taking on all of these bullshit questions and really getting the messaging out there. It’s been really, really cool to see after we recorded that initial conversation back in July, and I actually wanted to sort of start there. Right? Let’s catch viewers up on what’s been happening with the RMT specifically since we recorded that panel episode for Working People near the end of July when y’all were doing … You were getting these targeted strike actions going. Obviously, things have kept going since then. So I guess for folks watching and listening right now, can you tell us what’s been happening with the RMT specifically since the middle of the summer?

Gaz Jackson: So what I wanted to do is roll back a little bit further than July. In March the 17th, on St. Patrick’s Day, 800 seafarers that work for P&O Ferries got dismissed instantly on the spot. The government promised that there was strength in law so workers in this country couldn’t be treated in the way that they did, and they failed to do that. I mean, it just goes to show that what the Tory government in this country are doing to the working class in the UK is to just treat us with absolute disdain. So going forward, obviously, with the RMT, we’ve managed to take 16 days of industrial action. So today, my general secretary and the negotiation team are meeting with the prime minister and the transport secretary to try and barter a deal.

My personal opinion, while it’s this driver in the operation and all closure of ticket offices on the table, we can’t deal with that. Other things in the negotiations, we can negotiate around, but when we’re talking about losing safety-critical trained guards and ticket office staff, we can’t agree a deal. Without these people on the railway, we won’t have a safe or accessible railway. That’s not acceptable for anybody, and it’s not acceptable for the passengers. Obviously, that means a lot of job losses. Our picket lines that we’ve had across the summer and into the winter have been absolutely fantastically supported. It’s getting difficult, because we’re going out at 4:00, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning in the cold, the snow, and the ice in the winter. But what I would say is the public support that we’ve received has been absolutely fantastic.

Just touching on what you said about the press and the way the press has been questioning what we’ve been trying to do, we’re used to it. We’re used to the press not supporting us. We’re used to the press giving us a difficult time. We’re used to the press asking us questions, questions that are really irrelevant, because a lot of the questions that we’re getting asked are irrelevant to what’s going on with the dispute. What’s quite interesting is when they talk about the dispute and they say, “Well, what about the pay rise?” Well, in reality, this dispute is about a lot more than just the pay rise. It’s about people’s jobs. It’s about people’s terms, conditions. It’s about the safety on the railway, and then it’s pay rise, also. It’s not just about pay.

The members that are in, currently in dispute with the train operating companies and network rail, this is the fourth year that they’ve not had a pay rise, and throughout the pandemic, all these people worked to move key workers around so we could keep the country functioning. Now, we’re not worth a pay rise, and they want to make people redundant and make the railway a less safe place. Now, I don’t think that’s fair. Our members don’t think it’s fair. They’ve been absolutely solid on the picket line, and our anti-trade union laws also have made us having to reballot our members twice. Because our ballot for industrial action is only valid for six months.

And so our members have said twice that they want to go out on strike, because they understand the severity of what the cuts the Tory government want to make to our railway. These people are proud people that have worked. A lot of people have worked on the railway all of their working lives, and they don’t want to see a substandard railway. They want to see a flourishing railway where people can move around the country for a decent price, on time, and get from A to B when they expect to. Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen, over in the States, the mess that the railway has been out on non-strike days, the amount of cancellations on the trains because they can’t manage the system that they’ve got now. So the people to blame for the demise of the British Railway is squarely with the private, privately-owned train operating companies. I think it’s really important that we get a nationalized railway again so we can make it work for the people.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, it’s funny that you mentioned that, because that’s been on my mind constantly. I mean, we covered the crisis on the US rail industry all throughout last year, and I felt like if I had hair left, I would’ve been pulling it out. Because it was driving me nuts to talk to all of these different railroad workers, hear them express just so much frustration, and anger, and sadness about what has happened to their industry, what has happened to them and their coworkers, just over years if not decades, where we are moving way less freight than we should be in the year of our Lord, 2023. The quality of life for railroad workers has been plummeting, and workers have been quitting in, reportedly, record numbers. The quality of service on the freight rail industry and the passenger service has been going down, and yet shareholder dividends, and stock buybacks, and corporate profits are through the roof. Right?

And so there’s a real kind of sickening parallel here to what’s been going on in the UK and what’s been happening in the US, and I hope that folks around the country and around the world are starting to wake up to the fact that that’s not by accident. That’s because these corporate vampires are destroying everything, and it’s actually workers who are standing up and saying, “We’re not going to let this go on anymore, because if we do, it’s going to be a continual race to the bottom.”

I know that we even spoke about this a bit on the podcast back in July, where you and the other great folks that we got to talk to really made that point clear, which is that we were starting this negotiation period. Before the strikes began, the rail companies were coming to you guys with, what was it, basically between a two and 3% pay raise, which, with the cost of living crisis and the inflation, is a pay cut. Then, they also wanted to continue slashing jobs, which is just like where we’ve been seeing here in the US, piling more work onto fewer workers, making the service … like degrading the quality of that service, pissing off the customers, the passengers, the workers. Everyone’s pissed off except the people at the top it seems.

Gaz Jackson: Well, I think it’s done quite deliberate. These companies are making the railway a nearly impossible place for the workers to actually work in, because they’re wanting them to work more for less. It’s unacceptable. Our members have got families at home, and they’re expecting them to work the days off just to keep the trains running. The railways always run underestablished , which basically means there’s not enough people to run all the services without overtime. People are entitled to have the days off to spend with their families and to do what they want to do on the days off.

The companies across the UK have been putting things out saying, “Well, workers are refusing to work overtime.” Well, no. We’re not. We just, we want to have a time with our family. Everybody’s entitled to that. We don’t live to work. We work to live. People want to be able to go out and be able to spend the money. Obviously, with the cost of living crisis that we’re currently going through in the UK at the minute, going into the fourth year without a pay rise is really hitting people hard.

The expendable money that people had pre-COVID is gone. Our gas and electric bills are absolutely through the roof. Our train tickets are astronomical. Our petrol, our fuel, our diesel is astronomical, as well. Everything’s going up apart from our wages. We don’t see a Tory MP struggling to feed the children. We don’t see Tory MPs struggling to put the heating on in the house. We don’t see Tory MPs struggling to fuel the car.

I’ll just give you a little example of how money is being sucked out of our railway and sent to foreign shores. In Germany, in August this year, you could buy a train ticket for 30 euros for a month, and it would be valid for four weeks. You could travel anywhere in Germany for 30 euros for a month, anytime, any train. Right? I’ll tell you why they could do that. Because in England, train operating companies, certain train operating companies are owned by state railways. So CrossCountry, for example, in the UK are owned by DB, which is the German state railway. They’ve pulled loads of money out of the British railway and sent it over to Germany so they can fund their railway. How bizarre is that?

If it was nationalized, we would be able to offer the same. It makes sense. If people have the money to spend in this country and move around this country freely, then people would do. It would benefit the tourist, tourism. It would benefit the commuters. It would benefit everybody in society. But for some reason, this government just seem to think that we’ll keep everything privatized, and then we’ve got no real responsibility, when in reality, as a government, you have all responsibility for everything that goes on in your country and within the companies that you farm these train operating companies out to.

So that’s just an example of [inaudible 00:14:13]. It’s a really, really bizarre system that we work under in this country. All this money that goes to these shareholders that aren’t even using the railway, because they’re not in this country, it’s really bizarre, and it really confuses me, how they think it’s acceptable. Because I don’t think it is at all.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and again, just the parallels between what you’re talking about there in the UK and the bullshit that we’ve been covering here in the US are really striking. That’s why it’s also really important that groups like Railroad Workers United … Real News viewers and listeners will know Railroad Workers United. We’ve worked with them and their members and officers quite a bit over the past year, but they’re calling for the nationalization of the rails here in the US, as well. I think they have a very valid case to make, because as I said and others said, last month when scab Joe, President Biden undercut the railroad worker unions and forced a contract down their throats to, quote-unquote, “avert a national rail shutdown,” essentially giving the rail carriers, again, the people who are destroying this industry and the workers who run it for the sake of their own profits, essentially giving them everything that they want, the media here in the US, like in the UK, everyone was like, “Oh. We can’t possibly endure the economic turmoil that a rail shutdown would cause, especially with Christmas and the holidays approaching, yada yada yada.”

I think the obvious point that railroad workers were making and I and others were making was if the railroads are too vital to our infrastructure, to our supply chain, and to our economy to, quote-unquote, “allow a national rail work stoppage to occur,” then they are too important to be in the hands of these private corporations and Wall Street blood suckers who are destroying the entire thing for profit. Right? I mean, there’s a real cognitive dissonance there, and I think that’s why it’s so crucial to see what you all in the RMT and what other workers across the UK are doing, which is you are using collective worker power to fight against these systemic issues. You’re drawing the connections between the degradation of the rails and the kind of cost of living crisis, the corporate plunder that has been happening across sectors in the UK and beyond, and the people who are responsible for that in the government and beyond.

I wanted to sort of drill down on that, and it’s something that I want us to cover more in the coming weeks and months here at The Real News, this sort of enough is enough movement that has emerged in the United Kingdom, where you have workers, like I mentioned in the introduction, in healthcare, in education, in the building trades, in logistics, in transportation, rising up around these key demands and using industrial action and building solidarity to really advance that cause.

So let’s give folks outside of the UK a sense of just how far this worker rebellion has spread and what it actually looks like over there on the ground. So could you talk a bit about what it looks like beyond the RMT, what the Enough is Enough movement really is, how connected these different struggles are, the posties, the nurses, the rail workers? How much are these workers, these workforces and these unions working together, and what sort of issues are mobilizing this many workers in so many different industries right now?

Gaz Jackson: Yeah. So what I would say is I think that the RMT started the fight back, because we was the first out the gate. We was the first people to, obviously, ballot our members for industrial action. We’ve got 43,000 members that are obviously in dispute currently. Them people have took 16 days of industrial action, which has been absolutely fantastically supported, and then we got followed by the posties at the CWU. They’re absolutely fantastic, over a hundred thousand people out on strike. They’ve took a lot of action, as well, and then we’ve got the nurses. We’ve got the ambulance drivers. We’ve got the fire brigade. We have the barristers. We’ve even got even driving instructors out on strike. We’ve got people that would not normally take industrial action taking industrial action, like the NIU, the nurses union. They’ve taken industrial action for the first time in their history this year.

Nobody wants to take strike action. It’s the last resort. Nine times out of 10, we get a negotiated settlement that’s right for us and our people, because we’re allowed to negotiate with the companies. But I think what the issue is is the government want to really push down the working class in this country, as they probably are over in the States. You mentioned Biden. I don’t really know the detail in that, but from what I’ve read, he’s not fantastic, and he’s really done a number on you, if I’m honest.

That’s what the Tories are trying to do to us. They’re trying to put us in our place. When you look back at our history, certainly in the UK around the miner strike in the eighties, there’s so many similarities of what’s gone on there is happening now. The solidarity that’s been shown amongst the working people is absolutely fantastic. You know?

In the eighties, the nurses went out to look after the miners and stuff when they was out on strike and visited the picket lines. I’ve actually just been sent a badge today from one of my colleagues that commemorates the 1984 miner strike, which involves the RMT, which was then the NUR, because we refused to move the coal from the scabs. We didn’t do that. ASLEF, which are the train drivers union, they refused to move the trains, and obviously, the NUM, which is the miners union. So it goes to show how powerful people can be if they work together.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and you mentioned the Tories. Right? So let’s kind of focus on that real quick before I let you go, right, because I imagine our viewers and listeners, like myself, are very curious to understand just what the fuck these people are doing. Right? Obviously, it’s been a sort of high-stakes clown show from Boris Johnson to Liz Truss to now Rishi Sunak. So there’s all this sort of political turmoil, and coming at the worst possible time if we’re talking about the economic crisis, the cost of living crisis, the strain that working people are under in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Then, as I mentioned in the intro, instead of taking government action, using the power that the government has to address the systemic issues that are torpedoing the quality of life for working people, what the Tory government is doing is trying to beat workers back into subservient and strip their rights to strike. So can we talk about this anti-strike law? What is it? What the fuck is Sunak thinking, and I guess, what is your and the RMT’s response to this?

Gaz Jackson: Yeah. So from my understanding, they want a minimum service requirement, which would mean, certainly from the RMT, it’d be someone like me that would have to go into workplace and say, “Right. We need five people to work today.” Then, if we couldn’t get the five people, the government would seize the union’s assets. We wouldn’t be able to function as a trade union. I don’t know the detail, but that’s what I’m guessing what it’ll be. Now, all I would say is on the strike days that we’ve had, we’ve had scab managers working on the railway providing a minimum service.

So why does that need to involve the trade union? Because the companies are still running an absolute skeleton service, which is a minimum service, which I would see as a minimum service. So I don’t see why it needs to involve the trade union. All I can see that is is it’s another beating stick to try and beat us down. The government have got a quite simple way out. They can tax the 1% a little bit more, and then they can afford to give everyone a little bit more, the working class of this country a little bit more money. I’m not an economist, but if people have got money in their pockets, they’ll go out and spend it, which will bring inflation down. It’s pretty basic and standard stuff. You know?

What the Tories are trying to do is trying to put us back in our place, and what we’re going to do is the working class, involving our trade union, the RMT and the TUC, is we’ll do what’s required. If we need to go to court, we’ll take them to court, and we’ll fight them to the better end. Because we can’t become slaves, because that’s what we will be. The slave trade in the UK ended in 1883. We don’t want to be going back there, do we? Because you withdraw … If you can’t withdraw your right to labor, then what have you got? You become a slave. That’s ultimately what it is. So you peel away the meat from the bones, and that’s what you become. You become a slave. If you can’t withdraw your labor, that’s what it is.

Maximillian Alvarez: Right. I mean, I don’t think that that is exaggerating at all. Right? Because this is what, again, we were hearing from a lot of workers here in the United States, especially on the railroads, which was like, “If we do not have the right to strike, then what are we?” Right? I mean, “We are on call 24/7, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We are essentially just living at the behest of our bosses and corporate overlords, and if we don’t even have the ability to exercise our right to withhold our labor, then yeah. What would you call that?” Right?

The other thing that really struck me is, again, when people were talking about, oh my God, the economic damage that it would cause if railroad workers went on strike or rail carriers initiated lockouts, and it’s like that’s the fucking point of a strike, is to hurt your employer economically, right, is to bring the gears of production to a halt so that you can force them to actually come to the bargaining table with serious proposals, which they currently are not doing. Like you said, no one wants to do this, but if it’s a last resort, if this is the only way to get the bosses to actually get serious at the bargaining table, then that’s what needs to happen.

What the Tories are doing in the UK is essentially trying to find a way to undercut the collective power of workers withholding their labor by ensuring that a minimum service has to be upkept for workers on strike, which is popping the balloon entirely. That’s the whole point of the strike, is to bring those gears of production to a halt. And so this is really, really serious stuff that could have really, really wide-ranging implications. And so I wanted to ask you, Gaz, just by way of rounding out, and I’m sorry for keeping you so long, but it’s … You know I could talk to you for days, but I wanted to ask where this is all headed and what fellow workers in and outside of the UK can do to show solidarity with y’all.

Gaz Jackson: So I’m hoping the dispute for the RMT ends as soon as possible. Like I said, my general secretary is currently in a meeting with the prime minister of the UK and the transport ministers. We’re waiting to see the white smoke to see if there’s anything come out of these meetings. If I’m honest, I’m not holding my breath, but I genuinely do hope that we can get something done. Because nine times out of 10, we do get things done with the companies, and I think we would do this time if the companies were allowed to negotiate properly without the hand of the government telling them what they can and what they can’t do.

Regarding … Inflation’s currently running at 14.2% in the UK, and what the government is saying is if we give everyone a pay rise, inflation’s going to go through the roof. Well, most people in the UK have not had a pay rise for coming into the fourth year, so that makes absolutely no sense. What giving people a pay rise will do is give people more spare money so they can go out and have a meal with their family. They can go out and do things and spend money, which will boost the economy. It makes absolute sense for the government and these companies across the UK to give everyone a decent pay rise, because we deserve one. The gas and electric, the heating, the petrol, the fuel, the food, the water, everything has gone up. The only thing that hasn’t is our wages.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I just want to really emphasize for folks watching and listening, there are strike funds that you can donate to, including the National Strike Fund for the RMT, which we will link to in the show notes for this. But other than that, please just keep your eyes open. Stay focused on this. Share tweets and posts and … from the RMT and its members. Make sure that people around the UK and around the world know about this and that we are standing in solidarity with our fellow workers across the pond. Gaz, I can’t thank you enough for taking so much time to chat with me about this, brother. I really, really appreciate it, and I wanted to send all of our love and solidarity to you and to the folks in the RMT. Keep up the fight, brother, and let’s have you back on soon. All right?

Gaz Jackson: Cheers, brother. Looking forward to it.

Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Gaz Jackson calling in from the UK. Gaz worked on the rails for 15 years as a train guard and now serves as the RMT’s regional organizer in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Gaz, thank you again for joining us. Keep up the fight, and to everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez signing off. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
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