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Seeing Red: RMT action and cost of living crisis

Seeing Red is my regular column in The Isle of Thanet News. This opinion piece was first published on June 30, 2022.

Last week was quite a week. Not only have Covid cases started to soar in Thanet (please do take care – lots of hands, face, space, again please !) We also had three successful days of picketing at Ramsgate Railway Station. Not to mention two pretty humongous by-elections results which may well impact local politics. I wasn’t surprised at the strong Labour result in Wakefield and the positive outcome for the Liberals in Tiverton & Honiton. If replicated across the country at the next General Election, the swing of 12.7% to Labour would see Labour win an overall majority at the next General Election.

That’s quite a bit to digest.

RMT picket at Ramsgate station
RMT picket at Ramsgate station (Karen second from left).

Meanwhile our Prime Minister remains dogged by issue after issue. I believe it’s entirely proportional, and fair, to point out that Boris Johnson, has more than 51 of his own MPs actively called for him to step down. They believe Johnson is pulling the Conservatives and the country down as we spiral into an ever-deepening mire of controversy and muddled political thinking.

The cacophony of those desperately calling for a new Conservative Party leader includes Tory Stalwart, North Thanet’s own Roger Gale MP. Shortly before being due on air on Friday 24th June to discuss his Party’s election performance, Conservative party chairman Oliver Dowdon simply bailed, writing a surprise resignation letter to his Conservative counterparts. Strange really as only a week or so earlier he was singing Boris’s praises. I wonder exactly what happened in the intervening period? South Thanet’s own MP Craig Mackinlay, Chair of climate change denying Net Zero Group is silent on the matter, concentrating instead in trying to persuade us that going green to save the planet is unnecessary. (Good luck with that!)

Given that we are in the middle of a frightening cost of living crisis, with the highest taxation for 70 years, inflation is at its highest rate for 40 years, and RPI is at a staggering 11% and rising, it’s easy to understand why people are turning back to Labour.

What has Johnson’s most recent policy response been to this crisis? Well, he’s lifted the cap on bankers bonuses. As the rest of us struggle to manage and ever more children, 4M at the last count, are plunged into poverty, bankers can again earn unfettered amounts.

I can well understand and sympathise with the RMT. I was proud to join them on the picket line. A union of 82,000 workers who undertake all sorts of vital roles on the railway. From safety critical roles like checking the tracks, to selling tickets, to OBMs – on board managers. I’ve spoken to them all this week.

So what is the RMT fuss about? After all, we are all in it together, and didn’t Boris Johnson promise we’d all ‘build back better’? That, after all the clapping, public sector workers wouldn’t be forgotten, for valiantly working to get us through the Covid crisis. He did indeed. It turns out though, that railway workers, have only been offered a derisory 2% pay rise and an additional 1% contingent on accepting other significant changes. To enjoy this reward – which is in fact a 6% real terms pay cut – they are expected to work 39 hours instead of 35, to undertake additional unsociable hours, and face unlimited redundancies, on top of the 2,900 currently being sought. Not forgetting of course, the Government want to close all ticket offices in favour of a completely automated system. RMT are concerned that these changes will impact safety, both ours, the travelling public and theirs.

There seems to be a pattern emerging. Yet again the Government is passing the burden of its own mismanagement of the economy onto the ordinary worker. Elsewhere in industry bosses are doing the opposite and it’s working out extremely well for them. So well in fact, that top bosses pay has skyrocketed. According to the High Pay Centre, in 1979 the boss of BP was paid 16.5 times the amount of the firm’s average employee. In 2019 the Chief Executive of BP earned 188 times the amount. Likewise the boss of Barclays earned £87,323 in 1979 – 14.5 times the wage of the average employee – by 2019 he was earning £5.9million or 140 times that of the average worker. To add insult to injury rail firms shelled out £500m to shareholders whilst expecting workers to stomach a pay cut.

During Covid the airline companies, were ‘offloading’ staff, up to 43% of staff were ‘mothballed’ – hence the current staff shortages and resulting chaos at our airports. Now we’re seeing more Chief Executives being given eye watering pay rises. The Chief Executive of Birmingham Airport has been given a 49% pay rise.

Nick Barton’s annual wage has risen from £399,000 to £595,000. Heathrow’s CE has received an annual salary increase of 85% to almost £1.5m a year, and the boss at Manchester Airport Group had a pay rise of 25% to £2.5m.

But staff shortages, among security staff in particular, are causing a real headache for the aviation industry. Airlines are now fighting to get staff back. But after throwing workers on the scrap heap and decreased pay on offer they are struggling. That’s not exactly a surprise to most of us!

Let’s hope the RMT can soon settle the dispute and that a reasonable pay cost of living wage offer is made. If you don’t support the RMT and their fight to improve their pay, terms and conditions and maintaining safety. I suggest you consider that the spiralling cost of food, fuel and energy and out of control inflation are not ordinary peoples’ fault.

Why should we pay the price for a mismanaged economy?