Kent transport

Kent train strikes: I’m glad the railway workers are out – teachers and nurses should too – Vicky Castle

The biggest railway strikes in a generation began today (June 21) and are set to bring the country to its knees. The government has criticized the large-scale industrial action in hostile terms, and public opinion is mixed.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, called the walkout “a huge act of self-harm”. Other ministers called the action “stunt” and criticized the RMT’s “abuse of power”.

There is no doubt that the disruption will be enormous. Pupils in Kent will have to find alternative transport for their exams, hospital workers will have to find a way to find work – there will be few sectors of society that will not be affected by the strikes.

Read more: Southeast services canceled and stations closed

“How could they do this to ordinary workers” – I hear you ask. Because they ARE ordinary workers, just like you.

And just like you, trying to survive in a country crippled by a cost-of-living crisis, they find that their money doesn’t cover all their bills either.

They find that their wages have not increased at the same rate as their bills for electricity, food, housing tax, water, rent, insurance, gasoline and train tickets.

They too find that the mere fact of being alive costs more and more, but that their salary has not changed.

Much of the anti-strike noise centers on train driver pay. “How can someone earning £57,000 a year go on strike?” Let’s be clear, most train drivers are represented by another union – Aslef – which does not participate in these strikes. So let’s get that out of the way.

The actual median salary of a railway worker, according to the ONS, is more like £30,000. For many of those on strike, it’s more like £25,000. And despite getting a raise for absolutely everything else, they haven’t had a raise in two years.

But the railroad bosses are probably doing well. Steve White, Southeastern’s general manager, even gets free trips on trains, but not his cleaning staff. He took over in 2021 so it is too early to have his accounts.

Robin Gisby, chief executive of DfT OLR Holdings, a public company that now owns Southeastern, actually got a pay raise. In 2020 he won £195,000. And in 2021 that has risen to £206,000.

Robin Gisby, managing director of DfT OLR Holdings, actually got a raise

It’s not even just a question of money. Railroad bosses with huge wage packages are also cutting jobs. Essential jobs that people on the front lines say will make conditions on the network unsafe for staff and passengers.

Moreover, the discussions have been going on for a long time, without any real recognition on the part of the government on the issues. Instead, ministers reportedly threatened to cut even more jobs.

It comes from the same government that described railway workers as “heroes” during the pandemic. People who worked seven days a week to move the country forward. Workers who have been disproportionately affected by COVID due to their frontline position.

Have we already forgotten Belly Mujuina? The railway ticket office worker died in May 2020 after being spat at by a man with COVID while on duty in London Victoria at the start of the pandemic. Her family were concerned about the lack of PPE and Belly herself had pleaded not to work outdoors. But she was told she had to.

There is no better definition of “essential worker” than someone who “just has to do it”. So why isn’t it essential that government and business leaders treat frontline workers with the respect, pay and conditions they deserve?

Yes, the country will be crippled – that’s because the railway is essential, especially at a time when we desperately need to switch to greener travel.

And it’s not the only essential workers who should be preparing to leave, either. Nurses, teachers, paramedics, bus drivers – all frontline public sector workers who have been cheered and hailed as heroes during the pandemic but go hungry or cold when times get tough – all of these people should be enough bold to go out too.

The average salary for healthcare workers is £20,000, and many earn far less than that. Their working conditions are worse than ever and their wages are not paying their bills.

The average salary for teachers is around £27,000, but teaching assistants and other essential education workers are usually paid around £17,000 – a pittance.

These people, along with many other frontline workers, are the glue that holds our society together. Yes if they all strike, our country will be on its knees.

Not just on their knees, but in grave danger. What would happen to the most vulnerable in society if all health care workers went on strike? And the damage of an absent education sector would be enormous.

But that’s the point – surely that should prove how essential they are?

We need them, so why should we accept a society that refuses to appreciate them or care for them properly? Why should they struggle to pay their bills when the rich just get richer?

The UK has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. The majority of households are struggling to get by with wages well below the country’s average. Yet the average income of the richest fifth in this country has increased year on year.

The gap between rich and poor has widened to the widest in more than a decade. Inflation suffered by the UK’s richest and poorest households has reached its highest level in at least 16 years, according to a report by the Resolution Foundation think tank.

Of course, the economic challenges of a global pandemic will have implications for public finances, but it is up to us to clarify what the priorities are. It is, after all, our money.

Should we really freeze wages and cut the jobs of people we know are essential? Ignore their rallying cries to stop dangerous decisions? Turn against each other in difficult times?

Or maybe we should stand up for each other’s rights, listen to frontline experts, and envision a better future that isn’t just about letting the rich get richer.

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