Home » News/Views » RMT takes the lead in battle for pay and jobs

RMT takes the lead in battle for pay and jobs

All lined up but no one to drive them: trains at Paddington Station during the rail strike on 30 July. Photo Workers.

With figures showing that Britain’s workers have seen the value of their pay decline, on average, by more than 4 per cent over the past year – the sharpest drop for decades – RMT rail members are leading the fight for higher pay…

With real pay slumping and inflation soaring to 12.3 per cent for the year to July, there is no doubt that RMT rail members are leading the battle for higher pay.

RMT’s General Secretary Mick Lynch has self-evidently won the propaganda war with the government over pay. He has frequently appeared on television to calmly articulate the union’s case in the face of often hostile and aggressive interviewers trying to undermine and ridicule the RMT’s position. And the RMT’s use of social media has been outstanding, getting the message over whilst politely but effectively dissecting the arguments of those who seek to attack the RMT and workers in general.

Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport (as of the end of August), has been floundering in his response and has resorted increasingly to distortion, deception and lies when commenting on the rail disputes. 

He began by telling the RMT not to strike but to sit down with employers and negotiate a reasonable deal, while knowing full well that he had forbidden most train operating companies from holding pay talks with rail unions.


Those train operators have dutifully declined to make pay offers to staff, most of whom have had no pay rise for 3 years and who have consequently seen the value of their salaries reduce by around 9 per cent. Pay was frozen throughout the Covid pandemic, when rail staff were described as “heroes” by the very same government ministers and rail bosses who now regularly insult them and their unions.

Many rail industry bosses led by Network Rail’s Chief Executive Andrew Haines have been only too keen to be seen to support Shapps, parroting government lines that they know to be untrue. Haines has been publicly pilloried for taking a £36,000 increase in pay (more than the salaries of many of his staff) in April 2022. 


The 6.5 per cent increase on Haines’s £554,000 salary didn’t go down well with his staff, given that many of them have not had a pay rise since 2019. They were even more angered by one of Network Rail’s Regional Heads of Communications who, attempting to defend Haines’s pay increase, stated on a company social media platform that “It’s a lesson to those of us who probably should have worked harder at school”!

The other rail unions – Aslef, the TSSA and Unite – have followed the RMT’s lead and balloted rail industry members for strikes. Many Aslef train drivers were on strike on 13 August across the country, and few trains ran. 

‘Shapps told the RMT to negotiate while knowing full well that he had forbidden most rail companies from holding pay talks…’

TSSA members in Avanti joined the RMT industrial action in July when over 40,000 rail staff employed by train operators and Network Rail were on strike. Thousands more TSSA members joined with RMT colleagues for the 18 and 20 August strikes. The small number of Unite members employed by Network Rail have also voted for strikes.

All strike ballots by the rail unions have delivered substantial majorities in favour of strikes, although a few RMT and TSSA ballots have – by a handful of votes – fallen foul of the most recent round of anti-trade union laws that require at least 50 per cent of members balloted to vote, and 40 per cent of all eligible members to support industrial action. Members in those companies have immediately been re-balloted.

The pages of the Daily Mail have been used by Shapps to set out his 16-point plan to, as the Mail so delicately puts it, “smash the unions”. 

That plan includes increasing the threshold for votes in favour of industrial action to 50 per cent of those eligible to vote, requiring unions to ballot for each occasion that they propose to take industrial action, and increasing the notice period for each strike to four weeks. Shapps also wants draconian picketing regulation and the use of agency staff to break strikes.

There have at least been some negotiations with Network Rail. Indeed, the TSSA was able to reach a satisfactory deal for its manager members. But a settlement for the majority of the staff is clearly some way off, with negotiators reporting that in exchange for a pay rise, the employer is making totally unacceptable demands regarding changes to terms and conditions and job cuts. 

Unions fear that the proposed massive cuts in maintenance jobs would severely compromise the industry’s very good safety record.

The employers’ demands are framed by both Network Rail and their government masters as “modernisation”, a term so often used by employers as cover for making workers do more for less pay. The RMT, TSSA and Unite have firmly rejected those demands.


Grant Shapps’s idea of modernisation was shown when he went onto Twitter to say, “Archaic rules from 1919 mean working on rest days is voluntary…we MUST modernise rail.” 

Aside from the fact that his assertion is a complete fabrication, he seems to think that rail staff should be compelled to work on their days off at the whim of their employer, without any regard for the health and wellbeing of the individuals, or the safety risks that would result.

The rail unions have made it clear that they want the government to modernise the railway by investing both in the staff and in new technology. They are entirely willing to discuss modernising contracts of employment, but only if the workers get a share of the money generated by any productivity gains made.

Pay deals are possible with rail unions where Shapps cannot prevent negotiations taking place. For example, RMT and TSSA recently agreed an April 2022 pay increase of 7.1 per cent for Merseyrail staff, and constructive negotiations have taken place with Transport for Wales Rail where agreement seems close. Neither passenger train operator comes under the Department for Transport, which Shapps is responsible for.

They can afford it

It is not as if train operating companies can’t afford to pay their staff the pay rises they need.

‘Wealth is being transferred from the workers to the employers…’

The rail passenger franchise system that had been in operation since British Rail was privatised in 1996 was already failing badly when Covid struck, and was ended in 2020. The private companies and various foreign state-owned rail corporations were instead given management contracts which put them under tight government control – so the government can now dictate policy, including staff pay. But it also means that the employers are now guaranteed profits, which was certainly not a given under franchising.

So although passenger numbers fell dramatically during the Covid crisis, the operators continued to make healthy profits. Substantial dividends were paid to shareholders while at the same time their employees’ salaries were frozen.


Britain’s largest train operator, FirstGroup, has boasted to its shareholders and potential investors that profits this year are “ahead of expectation”, paying out £500 million to its shareholders in December 2021. As the RMT’s Mick Lynch has identified, workers are being expected to work for less, so it is not pay increases that have caused the huge increase in inflation rates. As usual, wealth is being transferred from the workers to the employers.

The excuse for the government attacks on rail staff is the drop in passengers – and revenue – following the Covid epidemic. But with rail passenger numbers now at around 95 per cent of pre-Covid levels and rising, driven partly by the hugely increased cost of fuel, that excuse is looking increasingly lame.

After the August strikes, the unions and their members will be considering their next moves. With more ballot results expected shortly likely to show even more rail workers voting for strikes, the struggle for pay and jobs looks set to intensify.