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  • Daniel Sillett

Back to the future: Why RMT strikes could take us back to 1974


Strikes in June will result in a significantly reduced rail service across the UK

This week, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT Union) announced it is organising a strike over pay in the coming weeks. When I read this headline, two questions came to mind. One, how is it possible for the world to be in such relentless turmoil all at once – given that the past five years have produced Brexit, Trump, a pandemic and nearly World War 3 to name a few. Two, have I accidentally stepped into a Tardis and been transported back to the 1970s?

The RMT Union bosses have argued that, having worked throughout lockdown with no pay rise in three years, the nation’s rail workers must take action. This seems a fair point, to the extent that 40,000 workers spanning 13 firms are walking out. However, we have seen this type of situation time and again in British history. For example, the 1974 miners’ strike forced Edward Heath to introduce a three-day working week to save electricity. Although the miners’ strikes of 1984 were equally chaotic because of the police brutality along the picket lines, their impact on daily lives was minimised as Britain had moved away from coal and toward gas and oil by Thatcher’s tenure.

The rail strikes would certainly be part of the former kettle of fish. Indeed, this summer has already been dubbed ‘the summer of discontent’, directly referring to the winter of discontent in 1978-79. This is because of the enormity of the forecasted implications of the rail strikes, creating similar disruption to 1970s union activism. It is not only those depending on rail networks to commute to work who will suffer, however. Post-Covid, events and hospitality have boomed in a desperate attempt to revive the industry from its effective shutdown during national lockdowns. With a very high proportion of the population now triple-vaccinated, the summer of 2022 was set to be the first period in two years where events can return to near-normality. Yet the rail strikes threaten to blow this out of the water entirely, making travel difficult for those attending big-hitters such as Glastonbury, the British Athletics Championships in Manchester and Sir Elton John’s concert in Hyde Park. Post-Covid, therefore, this is exactly what we didn’t need.

It is this surrounding context which inevitably gives the impression that RMT is throwing caution to the wind – and this is not a misleading conclusion, a point made clear when compared to other key workers.

In 2021, there was uproar when the Government pledged a puny 1% pay rise for NHS nurses, leading to a promise of 3%. However, even this larger rise will still leave nurses losing £1,600 a year in real terms, given rampant inflation.

Similarly, the situation looks bleak for teachers, for whom a similar rise has been suggested; but only for those in the upper percentiles of experience. This threatens a ‘mass exodus’ from the profession because inflation means a teacher’s salary simply is not attracting people into British schools.

I accept that inflation posits a difficult period for all of us, regardless of our profession. It is never going to be possible to provide every worker with a pay rise large enough to gain in real terms without fuelling a further inflationary wage-price spiral. But this requires us to be ever more careful with trade unions. They must be listened to, but they cannot overrun the Government as they did in 1978. Unfortunately, however, it appears this is exactly what is happening, meaning public money is going to those in less need.

It is obnoxious to underestimate the role of a rail worker – this is not my argument at all. However, a comparison of the salaries of train drivers with the occupations above produces a rather startling conclusion. Whereas the average train driver salary in the UK sits anywhere between £45,000-£55,000, for teachers and NHS workers it has remained static at the £30,000 mark for years. Yet it is the higher-paid rail workers demanding the raise.

The RMT’s argument that rail workers continued to keep the country moving throughout Covid is not inaccurate; yet it is inaccurate to imply others earning much, much less were not also doing the same. I would suggest that nurses and teachers in fact had a more difficult period: whereas train drivers’ working environment remained largely the same, NHS workers were obviously on the frontlines and teachers had to cope with online learning, whilst being responsible for young people’s futures.

Given the far from unique situation that has been faced by rail workers, in addition to the post-Covid economy-crippling situation of the Russian war and subsequent cost of living crisis, it is my view that the demands of the RMT Union are irresponsible. They are not invalid, but they are untimely and ignorant of the difficulties faced by other key workers facing much smaller remuneration.

Though it is necessary to acknowledge and respond to unionist demands, the Government must persist with a firm disciplinary hand on unionism to prevent a return to the 1970s standstill - or else we really may find ourselves going back to the future.

Image: Flickr / Adam Bryant



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