😊😫🤨 The late Bob Crow, who led the RMT trade union until his untimely death in 2014, enjoyed being a thorn in the side of ministers of whichever government happened to be in power. I shared a number of public platforms with him during my time at the Department for Transport and could always rely on his attempts to try to embarrass me and discredit the government over our pernicious refusal to renationalise the railway network.
😊😫🤨 Behind closed doors, Bob was a different character. He once contacted my office to seek an urgent meeting, and when he arrived he was apologetic for the chaos his arrival had brought to my carefully planned ministerial schedule. But there were jobs at risk at a major train manufacturing factory in Derbyshire and he wanted my help. He was courteous, intense, helpful and productive. The sloganising and political posturing of the public platform were forgotten; he was what he always was but sometimes hid: a serious union representative who cared first and foremost about his members’ welfare.
😊😫🤨 I don’t know Mick Lynch, Bob’s successor as boss of the RMT, but I suspect he’s cut from pretty much the same cloth. He has certainly won plaudits from the media and the public for his erudite and persuasive rhetoric deployed in the last few difficult days on the railways.
😊😫🤨 Whether he will be able to claim victory in any real sense after this dispute is over is unknown; what we do know is that Lynch has won the sympathy of many, even of those whose lives have been most affected by the cancellation of the vast majority of train services. The last 40 years have been difficult for the trade union movement, with barely a quarter of the workforce now wielding membership cards. But it’s not difficult to imagine workers being impressed enough by Lynch’s tactics and arguments to consider union representation themselves, or even to recommend to their own union reps that they adopt a less passive and more militant approach.
😊😫🤨 Because of the collapse in union membership and the consequent massive reduction in the number of working days lost through industrial action since 1980, we have perhaps lost at least some of the negative connotations we harboured in the immediate aftermath of the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1978/79, when union influence and ability to hamstring the economy was at its zenith.
😊😫🤨 Many of today’s workers and voters hadn’t even been born when the Thatcher government introduced legislation to force unions to ballot their members before a strike could take place, and would probably regard the previous practice of a show of hands in a hastily-gathered car park meeting as an alien and faintly amusing anachronism.
😊😫🤨 National strikes have become such a rarity that Conservative warnings of a “return to the 1970s” probably hold little power for those whose main perception of that decade is of colourful flared trousers and glam rock’s surrender to punk. So does absence make the heart grow fonder? As our collective memory of the political misery of the 1970s diminishes, are Britons adopting more of a tolerant mood when it comes to support for strikers?
😊😫🤨 Given the recent success of another rail union, the TSSA, in negotiating a 7.1 per cent pay rise from Merseyrail, it’s fair to expect other workers, not least those in other parts of the same industry, to be encouraged in their own efforts to have their own pay keep pace with inflation. The official Government line – that we can’t afford to concede inflation-busting pay awards without inflation itself getting worse – is rather undermined by their justification of inflation-level increases for state pensioners. Why is ten percent for millions of older Britons acceptable while more modest rises for (far fewer) RMT members is not?
😊😫🤨 The dangers for the Government are self-evident. Like mass industrial action itself, its consequences – double-digit inflation, drops in productivity, factory closures, job losses and severe impacts on related industries – have been largely shifted from memories into the history books. We have become complacent about both strikes and their economic consequences. With the post-Covid, post-Brexit economy already in a parlous state, the Government can’t afford to risk a proliferation of public sector strikes, even strikes that fail to secure larger pay days.
😊😫🤨 The case for reform of the railway industry is one that has to be made energetically, and it is one that will be accepted by most tax-payers and fare-payers, however much sympathy they may have for today’s strikers. But without a consistent anti-inflationary message that applies across all sectors – pensioners as well as workers – the Government risks blunting its own rhetoric and losing the political argument.
😊😫🤨 Worse, it could beckon in a new age in which workers regard the rarely-seen picket line as some kind of romantic icon of a bygone age which, against all experience and expectation, actually works.