The answer to UK's summer of rail strikes is German

The RMT is striking again - could German-style supervisory boards end the poisonous stand off between bosses and workers in the UK rail industry?

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 06 Jun 2016

Many years ago was the winter of discontent. Now it looks like we’re in for the summer of strikes. RMT workers at Southern Rail and London Underground have announced their intention to down tools next week, Southern claiming the usual ‘safety fears’ while their subterranean oppos object to the new working pattern that the 24hr tube will require.

Meanwhile their colleagues over at First Great Western have also voted in favour of industrial action, apparently citing the disappearance of buffet cars on new Hitachi inter-city trains as one of their beefs.

(Things have got pretty bad when the provision or otherwise of somewhere to spend a fiver on a soggy microwaved burger can cause a walkout. And given the level of overcrowding on many trains these days, customers would probably be only too happy to swap a pricey buffet car for an extra carriage-worth of seats).

Coming as they do shortly after a national strike planned by Network Rail employees was averted - largely by the blunt instrument of a 2% payrise - these new threats form part of a familiar and depressing picture of management by stand-off.

The cycle, characterised by mutual suspicion and mistrust on both sides, is one old British tradition we would do well to be rid of. It goes something like this:

a) New and better technology is introduced. It requires changes in working practices that bosses, fearful of trouble, ‘smuggle’ in, presenting it all as a fait accompli.

b) Staff - or at least a vocal minority - immediately swing into action to protect the status quo. A ballot is taken and strike threats duly emerge.

c) Management takes a view on how much they really want this new technology, and what parts of the new working practices can be sacrificed. If the answer to these questions is, ‘A lot’ and ‘none’, they can opt to buy off the strikers with pay rises or other costly concessions.

d) The strikes are called off. Nothing really changes. At no point in the process are the interests of customers paid anything more than loud, meaningless lip service.

Like every impasse, this one requires decisive changes of its own, and they should start at the top. It’s no co-incidence that the countries with the best rail services - Germany and Switzerland in particular - also share a rather less confrontational approach what used to be called ‘industrial relations’, thanks to the supervisory board.

The supervisory board - in which workers and union reps sit alongside senior managers on a board-like body and take a real part in strategic decision making, has a number of advantages. In contrast with our own Unitary board, where the interests of shareholders often take precedence over wider organisational issues, the supervisory board forces both sides to sit down together and listen, even if they don’t want to.

It enshrines in corporate law the need for opposing views to be reconciled little and often, rather than letting them brew up for years. And it has the crucial final advantage of taking in a much wider range of opinion, making it much harder for stroppy but vocal minorities (yes RMT we mean you) to drown-out more moderate and progressive views.

It doesn’t suit everyone. The idea of really having to take the views of workers into account is enough to make many a Brit-CEO come out in hives. Supervisory boards can be slow to act, and would be potentially disastrous in many fast-moving service businesses.

But in an industry like the railways, where capital cycles are long and government subsidies substantial, it’s the obvious answer. What’s not to like? Fewer strikes, more productive employee relations, and sidelining of noisy and self-interested minorities.

Who knows, we might even get better rail services in the end. Anything that can do all that has got to be worth a try. Although MT's editor might not agree - he can't wait for the arrival of driverless trains.

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