Today railway members of the RMT union started the first of 3 days of strike action. This will be hugely disruptive to a great many people, so it’s not an action that’s been taken lightly – strike action never is. It makes huge demands: you need to carry the affected people with you and focus their attention on the issues, rather than the action. Those on strike will be losing pay. In addition, going on strike rubs against the railway industry’s strong public-facing, service ethos. So why strike?
Today the fight is about three key areas – one of which tends to be the focus of public attention: safety, conditions and pay. It’s the latter which seems to grab the headlines; perhaps it’s easy to understand or relate to. Conditions and safety are less commonly discussed – and it’s the safety angle we want to focus on today.
Of course, it’s hard to disentangle these issues. If you don’t earn enough to support your family, you might be tempted to take extra hours – but when you’re tired, it’s easier to make mistakes. In a great many workplaces these mistakes might have little lasting effect on people’s health and wellbeing. But on the railways, the safety aspect is crucial. One mistake can lead to disaster.
We might point to Clapham Junction in 1988, in which one of the immediate causative factors was a mistake by a signal engineer working his 14th consecutive 7-day week. Or we might point to the 1892 Thirsk collision, in which an overtired signalman was forced to work his shift, during which he fell asleep and forgot about a train under his signals. That goods train was then hit by an express passenger service. There are many other cases we might point to, as well – all involving some combination of pay, conditions and domestic factors, resulting in safety implications for the workers, their colleagues and/or the travelling public.
Our project’s work is a testament many of these issues, manifested in the safety culture of the railway industry before 1939. In our coming data release, we have over 16,000 new cases of accident to staff, joining the c.4000 cases already present – a truly staggering number, and only a very small percentage of the total number of workers killed or injured doing their jobs. The safety culture of the time was one in which accidents were expected and largely accepted as a necessary and unfortunate part of the role.
Today, in some quarters the RMT – formed out of the National Union of Railwaymen (and before that, it was a number of unions including the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants) – is being portrayed as a haven of radical hard-left politics. That doesn’t seem to be borne out in the railway industry’s strike record.
Since the start of the 20th century, there have been relatively few railway strikes – we can point to Taff Vale in 1900, the first national strike of 1911, followed by national strikes in 1919, the 1924 Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen strike, the general strike of 1926 and strikes in 1955,1982 and 1992. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but gives the biggest strikes of the 20th century. What we see is a workforce with a strong sense of identity and two key unions willing to defend their members’ interests.
For the period covered by the project – before 1939 – we see many of the same issues as today being played out. There was – bitterly observed in the cartoon above – a view that the private railway companies were unwilling to recognise the skill and dangers of the job via adequate pay. Conditions – particularly working hours – were also a concern. The nearly 21,000 accidents in our project database (16,000 of them to be released soon) include 3132 cases where employees had worked over 8 hours – including 289 cases where staff had worked over 12 hours. Unsurprisingly, long shifts were a factor in accidents.
The NUR also focused on the economics of safety. This was less about big spectacular moments like strikes and passenger crashes, and more about a day-to-day company resistance to new measures or adequate staffing which might have cost more but reduced accidents. One of the major reasons the RMT is striking at the moment is about job cuts and safety, particularly in relation to over 2,500 job losses proposed. Many of these cuts are said to be at the level of safety-critical track workers: that doesn’t seem like a good idea for anyone, worker or passenger.
This question about staffing became particularly pressing in the 1920s and 1930s. In the fact of mounting financial challenges, the railway companies reduced the numbers of track workers employed. This left remaining gangs with longer stretches of track to maintain (as it was all done by gangs of men physically walking alongside track and checking things visually) – but with no extra time in which to do the work. The NUR complained, for example, in 1925 that
‘the number of men at disposal is small. Not one may be wasted. The ganger maybe thinks he can ill-afford a man to stand clear all day for look-out, and it may be he fears he may possibly be considered wasteful if he does have a man detached for that particular job alone’.
Later that month the NUR returned to the topic: ‘It has been considered infra dig to consult with mere wages staff as to the methods of working or the number of staff required.’ And in the difficult trade circumstances following the general strike of 1926, the NUR noted that trackworkers had been put on short-time, working only 3 or 4 days a week in some cases: ‘there is little doubt that it is economising at the expense of safety.’ We see this issue persisting throughout the 1930s, too, with this comment from August 1939 on the reduction in staff levels since 1921:
‘If a [permanent way – i.e. track maintenance] gang is expected to do more work than was the case some years ago, then each man withdrawn from the actual working members of the gang means a still heavier strain on the men, with the result that the quality of work is not up to standard’ [emphasis in original].
These issues are rather more complex than pay, so they weren’t and aren’t easily articulated, particularly not at times of strikes. That doesn’t mean they weren’t in mind when strikes were called – the evidence suggests they were in mind at all times. Constant pressure was needed.
So, on safety grounds first and foremost, but also on pay and conditions: solidarity from the project with all on strike!
 Railway Review, 7 August 1925, p. 9.
 Railway Review, 25 August 1925, p. 1.
 Railway Review, 15 October 1926, p. 1.
 Railway Review, 11 August 1939, p. 3.