OPINION: Strikes are costly, reckless and avoidable

RMT has announced that around 1,300 maintenance workers will be balloted for strike action over a di

A picket line during the rail strike - Credit: PA WIRE

This week has been made more challenging for thousands of my constituents as a consequence of the rail strikes that have been taking place.

It’s also worth pointing out that, as it stands, there is further planned strike action by the ASLEF Union on July 2 which is also likely to impact Ipswich train services.

My own view is that these deeply damaging strikes are highly costly, reckless and avoidable. Attempts have been made by the Government to prevent these strikes but the unreasonable demands by rail unions, in particular the RMT union, have made it impossible.

I wasn’t around in the 70s and 80s but for those who were I imagine they can draw real similarities between Mick Lynch from the RMT Union and a modern-day Arthur Scargill. 

Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt likened Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary, to Arthur Scargill - Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

We’ve also got a weak Labour Party flailing around not quite sure what do with itself. Labour leader Keir Starmer is gathering splinters claiming he doesn’t want the strikes but refusing to condemn them.

Labour leadership hopefuls Wes Streeting and Lisa Nandy have backed the rail unions, as has Deputy Leader Angela Rayner.

Wes Streeting even went as far as to say that if he was a rail worker himself he would be part of the strikes. We have seen 16 Labour MPs join picket lines, 3 of which are shadow Ministers; if we were in any doubt at all, it seems this answers the question of ‘Whose side are Labour really on?’.

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It’s a difficult situation for senior Labour figures. I sense they know the rail unions are being unreasonable and that the majority of the public don’t support the strikes but financially the Labour Party have come to rely on rail union donations.

There is also a peculiar dimension connected to the fact that perhaps another Labour leadership contest isn’t too far away.

If Durham Police decide to fine Keir Starmer for breaching lockdown rules then the Labour could well plunge into a leadership contest before the summer is out.

Due to voting Labour Party members being more leftward and likely to be supportive of the rail unions it is very possible that this could have influenced the public statement of leading Labour politicians with leadership aspirations. 

As a society we need trade unions. It’s also right that members of unions have the right to strike under certain circumstances. When I was at University I actually produced a 20,000 word thesis on the importance of Solidarity trade union in Poland and the contribution it made to defeating Communism.

However, when it comes to trade unions that represent workers who run key public services and infrastructure, it is important there is a framework in place to ensure that the actions taken by the unions are responsible and that impact on the wider public is also taken into account. Clearly it hasn’t been with these strikes.

Those most impacted by the strikes are workers who cannot work from home. While corporate workers can work from home, those working minimum wage jobs in hospitality or retail do not have this luxury.

The rail strikes will hit hardest for those already on the lowest wages, and will hurt our NHS, preventing nurses from getting to work, and patients from getting to hospital. 

Not only will working people be hit hardest by these Labour-backed strikes, but students travelling for A level and GCSE exams will be massively inconvenienced. As if exam mornings aren’t stressful enough, transport chaos will have a significant impact. After Covid disruption to education, this really is the last thing they need. 

I appreciate the work carried out by rail workers both at Ipswich train station and on the trains that serve our Town.

Whenever I meet them they’ve been polite and courteous. However, the fact remains that the majority of my constituents who rely upon the trains to get to work are likely on salaries below that of the average Greater Anglia employee and will deeply resent the way in which they are likely to be inconvenienced by the planned strikes over the next few weeks.

Overall the average rail worker has a median salary of £44,000, the average train driver is on £59,000, I appreciate the pressures that inflation is placing on us all but given the current context and the risk of significant wage increases across public services making inflation worse I do not think the 9% or even 7% wage demands of the RMT union are realistic.

Not only are the wage demands unrealistic, but the RMT’s refusal to deal with the Government is disappointing. RMT’s Mike Lynch said himself that he wouldn’t negotiate with a Conservative Government – which is incredibly unproductive. We have seen the RMT fail to approach negotiations constructively, and even walk out of talks with Network Rail. 

The strikes are not only prompted by wage disputes but by an attempt to modernise our rail system.

During the pandemic, £16 billion of taxpayer money kept the trains running. However, these subsidies are unsustainable and it is clear that restructuring is absolutely necessary. But the Unions don’t see it that way and are opposing the plans to modernise.

We need to bring the rail system into the 21st century and update workplace practices to boost efficiency. The Prime Minister echoed this sentiment, telling the cabinet that “We have to stay the course. These improvements are in the interests of the travelling public. They will help to cut costs for fare payers”. And for the record, I agree with the Prime Minister.  

As it stands, there are four days where my constituents will be impacted by strike action, this Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, as well as Saturday 2 July, when train drivers plan a further strike. 

Clearly, rail strikes mid-week cause chaos but earlier this week I stressed in Parliament that chaos and disruption caused at weekends should not be an afterthought, but so often it feels like it is.

Bearing in mind how constantly disrupted and limited weekend train services in Ipswich continue to be, it is really time to move rail travel forward.

This week, the Transport Secretary spoke to the chamber about how obsolete some working practices are – like excluding Sundays as proper working days when it comes to trains, which is an outdated concept from 1919.

I asked the Transport Secretary about the importance of weekend travel in the chamber this week, and was pleased to hear the Secretary of State reiterate the importance of weekend travel.

Sadly chaos at the weekends is something many of us have become used to. It wasn’t long ago where we had six consecutive weekends in a row having to rely on rail replacement buses.

I remember when the news was announced, almost as an afterthought. If I never have to see Newbury underground station again it will be too soon.

When I asked this question I was reassured by the answer provided by the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps. He made it clear that the objective must be to have a proper - seven-day-a-week rail service we can all rely upon.