Industry matters: railway pensions dispute

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The destructive effects of privatisation continue to play out ten years on in another once-public branch of industry, the railways. When public rail transport was denationalised, allowing this once-integrated network to fall into the hands of the privateers, workers found themselves ghettoised into one or another corner of the industry. By way of softening up resistance, many were offered share deals similar to those being touted around by Royal Mail, with free or discounted shares increasingly used as a sop to mute criticism of the daylight robbery of public assets and the scandalous neglect of infrastructure and safety standards.

Such share schemes, supplemented by periodic staff surveys purporting to give employees a say in how the company runs, pretend to turn employees from workers into shareholders with a real stake in ‘their’ company. But every capitalist knows that all that really counts is who holds the controlling share in a company. The other 70 percent or so, broken up between many smaller investors, yields dividends but offers little or no influence. And when a tiny portion of that 70 percent is broken into thousands of individual employee shares, then the dividends are chickenfeed in capitalist eyes, and employee shareholding serves as a badge of impotence, not an opportunity for workers to ‘have their say’.

Now that the Railway Pension Scheme (RPS) is hit by crisis, the real cost of privatisation is being rammed home. Along with the railway industry itself, the RPS was also broken up into around a hundred different ‘sections’, each with its own conditions and contribution rates.

This did not seem to matter a lot when the stock market was booming, pension funds were swelling and employers were encouraged to award themselves ‘pension holidays’, while simultaneously relieving the rail industry of £800m a year in profits (as calculated by Professor Jean Shaoul of Manchester University). The reality today is very different, however, as the overproduction crisis of capitalism has prevented the market from realising returns on invested rail pension funds sufficient to match the benefit levels to which RPS is committed. This has led to the accumulation of massive deficits.

These deficits have become a still more pressing issue because of changes in the way companies are required to audit their pension funds. Alarmed by the destabilising consequences of pension fund deficits across all industries, those authorities responsible for financial regulation have tightened up the rules governing the reporting of such deficits.

Under the new rules, the failure of the railway companies to agree contribution rates with the unions by the end of June would result in a contribution rate being set unilaterally by the actuaries appointed by the RPS Trustees. Since their overriding concern is getting the deficits paid off, this new rate would in practice amount to a draconian contribution rate which would coerce workers into paying off the deficit out of their current earnings. In addition to all the unpaid labour with which they have kept the companies flush with profits, they will now be expected to pay for the failure of the capitalist market by accepting either a reduction in their deferred wages (pensions), a reduction in their current wages (occasioned by a hike in contribution rates) or, most probably, both.

In response to this, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) are now in dispute with the railway companies and have balloted for industrial action. The campaign to defend the RPS is founded on four demands:

1. Cap employee contributions at an affordable level (10.56 percent);

2. Keep benefits at least at their current level;

3. Streamline RPS from about 100 sections down to three sections;

4. Keep the scheme open to all employees.

As with the Royal Mail disputes, this welcome campaign to defend wages and conditions cannot be divorced from the struggle against privatisation, and that in turn cannot be divorced from the struggle against imperialism itself, the crisis of which system dictates both the erosion of wages and conditions at home and the exploitation and oppression of the world’s peoples abroad.

To fight imperialism (monopoly capitalism) means to break the link with Labour, which ties workers’ hands with anti-union laws and seeks to blindfold them by drawing them into complicity with oppression abroad and racism at home.

And, as the RMT (to their credit already disaffiliated from Labour) is discovering, it is not enough simply to break organisationally with Labour, necessary though that is. If organised labour is not to waste its energy and resources in the pursuit of one will of the wisp after another, whether it’s the latest Trot election stunt in Britain or some ‘fraternal’ outfit in Baghdad or Teheran which turns out to be another collaborationist fraud, then it must learn to rid itself once and for all of the rotten social-democratic ideology that permeates every corner of the labour movement, founded materially on crumbs from the superexploitation table.

Every inch of progress made in that direction will strengthen incalculably both the struggle to defend a ‘fair’ deferred wage (pension) and the struggle to move forward to the abolition of the wages system itself.

> Royal Mail sets collision course with postal union