Network Rail docks striking workers bonuses to hamstring future strikes

Network Rail docks striking workers bonuses to hamstring future strikes
Courtesy: Network Rail

Network Rail has announced that many workers, particularly members of the RMT Union (Britain’s Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), are to be docked their bonus pay due to strike activity throughout 2023


Disputes between organised labour and executives at National Rail have coloured much of the year. As is often the case, the clashes were largely due to pay. Wages were frozen in 2021, and since then, intense inflation and a so-called ‘cost of living crisis’ (a concept which we at impACT have consistently recognised as a misnomer) has created incredibly difficult working and living conditions for many.


It was only in March of this year that, begrudgingly, RMT members accepted a sub-inflation pay rise and no compensation for the wages lost between 2021 and 2023. This episode serves as yet another aggravating factor as contestations between labour and executives continue on their fractious relationship. 


With 20 000 union members set to miss out on a £300 bonus, 12 000 people have now signed a petition for Network Rail to re-instate them. Mick Lynch, Secretary-General of RMT has described the bonus dock as “a transparent attempt to divide the workforce”. Certainly, Lynch’s point has merit though perhaps a little muted. Attempts by National Rail to separate active union members and ‘deserving’ workers loyal to management or unable to strike, is an attempt to hamstring cohesion and future actions. impACT would like to suggest that punishing workers financially for striking, whilst rewarding those who did not, is more than simply division. Though the bonus figure is not a huge sum (even National Rail have previously paid an average of £1000 bonuses to workers), it represents a rather difficult reality as executives place active members in increasingly contentious positions as they continue to work. Whilst spokespeople from National Rail have stated that they were "crystal clear with both trade unions and employees that the cost of strike action would directly impact the scheme", this does little to satisfy the realities of the situation. They have isolated and are punishing those active in unions, re-iterating the power of the organisation over the finances and future of their employees, and creating conditions that will further harm those struggling during a so-called ‘cost of living crisis’. impACT suggests that if gulfs continue to widen between executive classes and labour, it is likely that conditions will worsen exponentially as union action is immobilised.


Of course, for executives, the impact of the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ and the environment of inflation has been rather small. Andrew Haines CEO of National Rail, with an annual salary of £520 000 in 2021, saw a 8.1% pay rise in 2022. Aside from being above the raise offered in initial discussions with RMT, the increase is 19-times what the union says the median wages of rail workers were. Learning this, it is rather galling of National Rail executives to attempt to qualify frozen pay meagre proposed wage increases with a worsening national financial environment when they themselves are rewarded with raises and benefits. 


The 1930 Forced Labour Convention, of which Britain is a signatory, states that “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. impACT posits that if, whilst considering striking or other union activities due to poor conditions, workers are aware of possible financial repercussions in the future, it is more than likely that some individuals may not take part in strikes, lessening their influence, and maintaining conditions. Forcing unwilling members of a union to work through coercive financial pressures certainly illustrates that there is room to discuss the legitimacy of the argument that National Rail have broken the Forced Labour Convention.


Striking is a fundamental part of democratic society. Maintaining hard fought protective labour laws and ensuring that possible infractions of critical conventions are investigated by regulatory institutions must be a priority of any cogent government. The future is looking bleak however, the government has recently passed the Minimum Service Levels Bill which demands a ‘minimum service’ provided during strikes, thus degrading their very purpose. This recent iteration of disdain for organised labour, though not a drastic event, certainly serves to further degrade organised labour in Britain. The complete lack of institutional and public support for union activity is painting a rather desperate picture for workers in all industries in Britain. More must be done, immediately, to prevent sliding into worsening labour rights and the debailitation of union action. 


impACT demands that National Rail stop their attempts to break union power and pay their employees fairly. Further, the UKRN Office of Rail and Road, alongside other state institutions to should investigate the legitimacy of National Rails actions. 


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