British Railways Strike Strong in the Face of Government Attacks

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Rail workers—we want to hear from you. contact us with updates on the strike, descriptions of your conditions and your views on the fight that needs to be waged.

Tuesday was the start of nationwide UK railway strikes called by the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, with further strike days scheduled for Thursday and Saturday and rail services expected to be heavily disrupted throughout the week. London Underground workers have also gone on strike, closing most of the capital’s underground lines and severely restricting service for others.

The World Socialist Website provided live strike updates throughout the day.

Tube workers on the picket line at London Bridge station [Photo: WSWS]

The mood on the picket lines was determined. Workers described lives made unlivable by the cost of living crisis, grueling overtime, understaffing and funding cuts. They reported plans for a savage and dangerous attack on railway jobs, wages, and conditions.

Many strikers acknowledged the struggle was just beginning and called for broader action, including a general strike, citing other sections of workers pushing for industrial action. #RailStrikes was a trending hashtag on Twitter throughout the day, and thousands of people were using #GeneralStrike and #GeneralStrikeNow.

This sentiment puts the working class on a collision course with a Conservative government determined to break down all resistance. The Tories responded to the strikes by repeating every threat made over the past few weeks and insisting it would be a fight until the end. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps gave interviews to the BBC and Sky News, rejecting complaints from the RMT and Labor that they should hold talks to end the dispute.

The Labor governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had never negotiated with striking “firefighters and postal workers”, he said. The government would instead change the law to allow companies to use agency workers as scabs during strikes and was still determined to enact minimum service legislation during strikes, rendering industrial action ineffective.

Expressing sympathy for the RMT’s offer to end the dispute, Sky News’ Kay Burley asked Shapps: ‘Why don’t you roll up your sleeves and get together around the table with the unions this week so that we don’t have two more strikes? ”

Its noises of support indicate the fears of some within ruling circles that the rail strikes could spark a wider movement in the working class and their understanding that the portrayal of the RMT as an intransigent opponent is false.

Confirmation came from Eddie Dempsey, RMT Principal Deputy General Secretary, who told the Independent“Much of what the government is saying is crazy hyperbole and inflammatory remarks. They don’t want a settlement…if we can get this settlement, these strikes will be called off. He went on to praise the management of Network Rail and train operators, who he said behaved “gracefully” and “properly”.

Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, also said Times Radio he had come very close to reaching an agreement with the RMT last night on “a credible package for colleagues with the kind of workplace reforms that would also be appreciated by the taxpayer. We were a hair’s breadth away from that.

Only the intransigence of the conservatives prevented a rotten sale by the RMT. Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated his own determination to defeat the railway workers. At a cabinet meeting, he warned of “Ukrainian war fatigue”, insisting the UK remains “tough” and that fiscal discipline must also be maintained. This involved pushing through reforms in the railway industry and more broadly. “And we need the union barons to sit down with Network Rail and the rail companies and carry on.”

The country “must prepare to stay the course… This government was elected to do the hard things…”

Much of the British press was with Johnson in his drive to defeat the railway workers and set an example for the working class at large. The Daily mail wrote: “If railway bosses and ministers capitulated, it would undoubtedly trigger similar wage demands across the public sector…”

The Telegraph called for state repression: “With a majority of 80, the government could introduce emergency laws tomorrow. It should also prevent the strikers from making up for their losses through extra time. It’s time to toughen up.”

The Time insisted, “The Government must stand firm” and Prime Minister Boris Johnson “demonstrate that he is ready to do whatever it takes”.

Labor spent the day asserting its opposition to the railway workers’ strike, while complaining that the Tories had caused it and could work with the unions to call it off. This position was shared by the right under Sir Keir Starmer and remnants of the Corbynite left.

Only a handful of Labor MPs, plus former leader Jeremy Corbyn now sitting as an independent, joined the picket lines after Starmer was instructed yesterday to stay away. Most were Corbyn’s waning group of allies, including former shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, Socialist campaign group leader Richard Burgon, former shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and former head of the national miners’ union Ian Lavery. But others, including Scottish Labor leader Anas Sarwar, were present out of a common fear that Starmer had destroyed any support Labor still enjoys in the working class.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch called on Starmer and “his team” to “ride the wave of resistance” and support the strikes. Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham said: “We expect Labor MPs to stand up for working people, in words and in deeds… It’s time to decide which side you are on. Workers or bad bosses?

RMT leader Mick Lynch speaking at the Trades Union Congress rally in London on June 18, 2022 (WSWS Media)

All of this rhetoric, whether it comes from the unions, the “Labour left” or even some on the Blairite right, only sweetens the bitter pill of calls for a negotiated surrender.

These are the three parties in the railroad strike and in all ongoing or threatened industrial struggles: the majority faction of the ruling class led by Johnson seeking to crush the strikes by brute force; the unions and their supporters in the ruling class arguing for a peaceful surrender; and the working class looking for a way to defend its interests.

Workers are facing a war on two fronts. Johnson’s conservatives can appeal to the entire apparatus of state and the media, the unions to their bureaucratic apparatus, and their friends in the Labor Party. To overcome these obstacles, the working class needs its own organizations and its own program to emerge victorious – rank-and-file committees of workers in every workplace fighting for anti-inflationary wage increases, an end to all attacks against jobs, pensions and conditions, and the downfall of this hated government.

The Socialist Equality Party calls on workers to contact us today to take up this struggle, with the help of the International Alliance of Rank and File Committee Workers. Visit our rail strike page for updates and essential reading.

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