It’s obvious when capital is at risk that the organ of the capitalist class attacks trade unionism. Words such as ‘trade union barons’, ‘militant’, ‘Spanish practices’, and the other dreaded m-word ‘Marxist’ are thrown together in a word salad of anti-working-class rhetoric. Oh, for the days when an industrial correspondent would report on workers’ struggles from a position of knowledge. The writing of said scribes was not always agreed with, but at least they understood the internal mechanisms of trade unions and the rank and file.
Today work and the act of working are misunderstood by the tabloid press often engaged in amplifying Tory criticism, be that against those productively working from home or passport office workers, working diligently to clear the backlog of passport applications. The tabloid press, just like conservative ministers, have never understood the working class, disdain runs through every article printed and utterance made in the House of Commons.
The Daily Mail should be ashamed of the article published on 10 June in which reporter Guy Adams dissects so-called Spanish practices at a number of train operating companies. Take the example ‘walking time’, which to Adams is a Byzantine practice; it may seem strange to a reporter who can go to lunch when they want, purchase food and drink off the clock and visit the lavatory any time of the day. For a train driver or conductor, this activity must be squeezed around operating a train or several trains safely and on time. The only way to do this is to provide specific time allowances for each and every activity.
The reason agreed walking times are in place is not only for the benefit of train operating staff, but also assists the train operating company, facilitating the operation of punctual train services. Late trains cost money (and with a number of the Train Operating Companies under government control the taxpayer).
Walking times may seem over-generous to someone like Adams, but just because on the day he was present the walking times could have been reduced, doesn’t mean they can always be so. Crowded platforms and late-running services can all impact the smooth flow of people through a station. Is it really unreasonable for a member of staff to start their break when they arrive at the mess facility? It’s not as if they can teleport from train to mess room and back again. The Daily Mail would have its readership believe that militant trade unions dictate these conditions, when in fact they are negotiated items. Management would start with the shortest time, the trade union something longer and often (more often than the Daily Mail would have its readership believe) they meet in the middle – it is called the art of negotiation.
Let’s examine the statement ‘drivers who turned up for work and reported that they had taken medication could demand to be sent home on full pay.’ There is a very good reason for this, unlike the Houses of Parliament or indeed many of the nation’s newspaper offices, the railway industry has a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol and drugs (which includes over-the-counter medications). The rail industry and safety regulators demanded, quite correctly, such a policy after several high-profile rail disasters where alcohol and/or drugs played a role.
Unlike the scribe at the Daily Mail, a professional rail person can’t just take any medication for their presented symptoms, many medications come with a risk of side effects. The rail industry cannot risk a member of staff operating in a safety-critical environment under the influence of a drug, and so require all staff to declare any medication before booking on for duty.
Most will advise their doctor or pharmacist of the work activity they undertake, and the medication prescribed should be ok, but it still must be checked. It is not uncommon for a G.P. to say the medication is ok before a rail industry-mandated medication check rules it out. Train crew will normally check their medication with the employer before taking it, just to confirm it is ok, if it isn’t the staff member avoids taking it until they have a group of off days or seek an alternative medication.
Sadly sometimes the symptoms require the medication to be immediately taken. If the medication possibly has side effects then the staff member will be stood down from duty. The health of the employee and the safe operation of the railway is paramount to all concerned.
I’m sure some reading this will be screaming at the page ‘don’t tell them then’. Not only would this be extremely reckless and put the travelling public at risk, especially if the staff member was struck down by an unknown side effect, it is also important to understand that a member of railway staff can also be randomly, and post-incident screened for alcohol and drugs. Putting this into context, a member of rail staff could take an over-the-counter medication, believe they are ok for duty, and then be involved in an incident which is not their fault, say a fatality (suicide) involving a member of the public.
The investigation would require the member of staff to undergo post-incident alcohol and drug testing, the results would come back with an undeclared medication present, which may result in side effects, regardless of whether the staff member experienced any. The positive result could result in dismissal and/or prosecution. These are not rules dictated by a ‘militant union’, but health and safety legislation mandated by regulators and the rail industry.
I could go on one-by-one dissecting the nonsense reported by the Daily Mail, but I hope I have demonstrated with the two examples above that these so-called Spanish practices are no such thing.
Public opinion is important in an industrial dispute, it is often difficult for the trade union to get their side of the argument out there. Newspapers in this country are rarely supportive of workers and the working class. Press barons (a far more acceptable use of the term, alongside robber barons) often dictate the narrative for the capitalist class, journalists echoing a line rather than seeking and reporting facts. The focus on where a particular trade union leader lives or how much they earn is an example of a weak argument designed to antagonise Mr Angry of Cheltenham rather than provide the readership with a coherent informative narrative.
That Mick Lynch the leader of the RMT lives in a £1 million pound house in London, should not even be a story. After all, it’s no surprise to anyone that many properties are at or above this rate in London. Million-pound houses are indicative of an overheated housing market, and provide ample evidence of the problem with house ownership/house supply and the failure of conservative government policy. This is the story rather than the RMT leader being chastised for paying a mortgage on a family home. That he earns over £100k is nothing compared to some of the FTSE business leaders, Lynch is responsible for staff that look after 80,000 members nationally across the rail and maritime sector. The salary is requisite for the role and the responsibility of running a successful trade union.
The RMT is a proud member-led union, their staff representatives guide the executive committee if the terms of a pay deal are acceptable or require further negotiation and then if still not agreeable a ballot for industrial action is called for. If the staff representatives and the executive committee have misjudged the mood of the rank and file, then a yes vote will not be delivered. That 89% of those balloted this time around voted yes for industrial action demonstrates the strength of feeling. Those in power will have the public believe this dispute is just about greedy rail workers wanting more than teachers or nurses. This couldn’t be further from the truth; rail workers wish everyone were awarded pay rises that help assist them through this tory-made cost of living crisis. It must be recognised that pay still hasn’t caught up from the 2008 financial crisis, unlike bankers’ bonuses and MPs’ salaries!
It is not unreasonable for a trade union to campaign for and use industrial action to protect jobs now and into the future. That capital and government always act in the short term do not mean trade unions and workers have to do the same. The government and tabloid press want the public to believe this dispute is just about train driver pay, it isn’t, this is about safeguarding the jobs of many different roles, those also working behind the scenes, who work 7 days a week/365 days a year to keep an antiquated system safe and operational.
That the Tories have now thrown down the threat of future legislation in which agency workers would be allowed to strike break and those out on strike would be unable to make up lost pay with overtime is just red meat to the Tory right. Announced by Ministers at the most delicate point of negotiation to cause maximum upset to the trade unions. Anyone would think the Tories are yet again agitating for war with the trade union movement. That it also takes the spotlight off the Prime Minister’s partying and lying is purely coincidental.
We should all get behind the RMT and the other railway unions as they fight for a railway that everyone can be proud of, operated in a safe and efficient manner for the travelling public today and into the future. Solidarity to all those who start the dispute on 12 June 2022. Once this battle is won, it will be time to challenge the anti-trade union legislation that has held us back for so long.
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