Govia Thameslink / Southern trains at Brighton railway station. Photo: Matt Buck (under Creative Commons)
The Today Programme’s dodgy #SouthernStrike maths
This morning’s Today Programme on Radio 4 covered the industrial dispute at Southern Rail. Justin Webb talked live to his correspondent Ben Thompson at Victoria station (Listen at 47:38), who expressed concern that the 5 day strike over guards’ safety concerns would not be legal under planned new government restrictions:
“Earlier in the year there were new rules brought into force that would limit strike action if it didn’t get overwhelming backing from union members. There are 80,000 members of the RMT union, and yet just 393 of them voted for strike action today.
Clearly that ballot took place in April, before the new rules were brought into force in May, but clearly Govia Thameslink and Southern Rail say they are unhappy that it has got to this stage, because with a vote of just 393 members it would not have been permitted under the new rules.”
With this, the Today Progamme seem to be showing a similarly tenuous grasp of maths as the politicians who originally proposed the new strike regulations.
So, to make things a little simpler for the nation’s flagship current affairs radio programme:
The RMT are a trade union. They represent 82,256 people. However, not all of those members actually work for Southern Rail as guards. As well as guards, station staff and other roles in Southern Rail, all other rail operators and London Underground, that 82,256 also covers RMT members working in shipping, road transport and offshore oil. If Southern Rail had 82,256 guards, it might explain some of the fare hikes that passengers are currently (and rightly) so annoyed about. But they don’t.
The number of RMT members working as guards for Southern Rail is 393 (not 82,256).
393 members were balloted as to whether they wanted to take strike action. Of those, 321 returned a vote. Of those who voted, 306 voted yes.
Ben Thompson was correct that the strike qualified under the old rules. Well done.
But the new rules, which will include a special double hurdle for workers in ‘important public services’ (40% of those eligible voting yes, on a turnout of more than 50%) would also sanction the strike.
The turnout was 81% (more than 50%), and the yes vote was 77% (more than 40%).
So RMT members didn’t fail the new balloting rules, they smashed them.
Given unions are restricted to only using postal voting for strike ballots (a method proven to depress turnouts) a 77% total yes vote shows that the workers affected are very very concerned about this issue.
Despite what the Today Programme think, Southern guards aren’t taking this strike lightly. Nobody likes to go strike – it’s confrontational, difficult and you lose pay and damage working relationships. But staff can be pushed to use this final resort tactic, when an employer will not listen to concerns on an unjust decision.
Striking guards want a safe and accessible rail service, with proper staffing levels to provide a decent service. It’s what the travelling public want too.