New leader, same old battles

RMT supports public ownership of our railways and it is hoped that the election of Richard Leonard as a Labour leader in Scotland whose platform included a commitment to this policy will move this agenda in a positive direction for rail workers. And, Richard is also a member of the RMT cross party group of MSPs and so will have an understanding of many of the concerns of transport and offshore workers. But RMT members will also remember too well the days of ‘new’ Labour in Scotland who presided over and embraced a privatised railway and forced the tendering of our vital lifeline ferry services.

The lesson here is that regardless of who is leader, workers and their unions are engaged in constant struggle to defend and advance their interests. Of course, our political strategies require us to be principled but that does not mean we have to be one dimensional. So the RMT has good campaigning relations with Green and SNP as well as Labour politicians and many socialists outside the main political parties. We would not be acting in the interests of our members if we did not do so. 

Under the SNP Scottish Government, the RMT has achieved some victories such as stopping the privatisation of CalMac, preventing the extension of Driver-Only-Trains and ensuring enforcement of the National Minimum Wage on ships of shame. These have been down to the industrial and political and campaigns ran by the union and, critically, the skill and determination of our Scottish activists and officers and primarily the tremendous solidarity and determination of our members who have often taken strike action. But we have also been able to have constructive dialogue with some SNP, Labour and Green politicians as well to help achieve our aims. It is objectively better to have politicians that you can have some sort of sensible conversation with and importantly you can also put pressure on.

But there are complex and challenging issues ahead that all our political leaders need to address. Take rail. There now seems to be a growing consensus that rail in Scotland should be taken back into public ownership as soon as possible. Whilst the public sector bid being proposed by the Scottish Government for the Scotrail franchise is better than nothing, it still requires a tendering process that could both drive down workers’ conditions and end up with another private operator. The SNP, Labour and Greens need to call on the UK government to repeal the 1993 Railways Act which requires the tendering and privatisation of rail passenger services. But even that only moves us so far. The big problem facing the railways is not just privatisation but also fragmentation. Network Rail which is publicly owned on a UK-wide basis needs to stay like that and any attempts to break it up must be opposed. That is an important precondition for our railways to be reintegrated to bring trains and tracks back together.

Then there is maritime and offshore which in Scotland is worth some £9.3bn in turnover and supports nearly 40,000 jobs. It was welcome that Transport and Islands Minister, Humza Yousaf awarded the 2016-24 contract to public sector incumbent CalMac in May 2016. The next step is to ensure the now record investment in Scotland’s lifeline ferry services does not continue to prop up the finances of Serco or similar ‘outsourcing specialist’. In December 2017, sustained political and legal pressure from RMT and supportive MSPs persuaded the Scottish Government to adopt a new legal position on tendering. Yousaf announced the emerging findings of his ferry law review. These shy away from legally exempting tendering across the Scottish ferry network whilst state direct award of these contracts is the Scottish Government’s preferred policy. The Scottish Government seems determined and confident of persuading the EU of the merits of a fully compliant exemption on the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services contract (which CalMac already operates), there is pessimism over the case for direct award in the Northern Isles. This means we will have to redouble our efforts to nationalise all Scottish ferry services including NorthLink.

Regardless of political leaders, we also face another struggle offshore, especially on the safety of helicopters. This is an area of concern that our activists and officers are working tirelessly to highlight. Since 2009, 33 offshore workers and crew have died and 65 have been rescued from the North Sea following six accidents involving Super Puma 225 and AS332 L2 helicopters. Investigations in Norway and Britain on fatal and non-fatal Super Puma accidents since 2009 have uncovered similar mechanical failures.

Worryingly, the Civil Aviation Authority lifted official restrictions on these helicopters in July 2017 without properly consulting offshore workers or their unions. The RMT firmly believes that Super Pumas should not return to the North Sea without the prior agreement of a majority of offshore workers. Shockingly the UK Government rejected the Transport Select Committee’s July 2014 recommendation for a public inquiry into commercial pressures on offshore helicopter safety. 2018 is the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster and a reminder of the necessity for the highest possible standards of offshore safety. RMT is calling on all politicians to support its call for the Government to launch a public inquiry into the offshore helicopter safety concerns that are consistently raised by offshore workers.

Let’s welcome progress when it happens and work with those who support workers. But regardless of political leaders, the New Year will see us fighting to win old – and new – struggles.

Mick Cash is the General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union.

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