Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 51 Number 5, February 13, 2021 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers' Forum

Transport Workers Condemn Employers over Disregard for Covid Variant Measures

Following the government's instructions to the people living in areas affected by the South African variant of Covid-19, the transport union RMT have exposed both Transport for London (TfL) and Merseyrail for their disregard of these rules, and the government for its complicity through inaction. On February 1, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told people living in any of a set of postcodes across the country identified as centres of the new variant to stay at home, and that these areas would be targeted for surge testing. Ignoring the safety measure, TfL and Merseyrail have instructed staff living in these areas to attend work as normal if they cannot work from home. RMT has condemned the move and has called on the government to exercise public authority over these transport employers.

The ruling circles are finding themselves at an impasse, simply unable to deal with the Covid crisis. Meanwhile, business just wants workers to work, causing major problems in the pursuit of narrow private interests. That is just as much the case for employers such as TfL and Merseyrail, which are officially public bodies. These bodies are either directly connected with private interests via corporate entities such as Network Rail, which retain an element of public-private partnership, or are connected through playing their key infrastructure role in a socialised economy that is divided into competing privately-owned parts, in which business at large demands transport continue to run. The transport employers operate on the business model as state-run capitalist enterprises, claiming from the massive value their workers create in fulfilling this key role.

In doing this work, carrying out their productive activity, transport workers are facing dangers every day in the present health crisis. It is with these workers that the solution lies, in whose direct interest it is to solve the problem of their conditions of health and safety at work, as part and parcel of the health of society as a whole in all its aspects. They are speaking out but finding that their voice is ignored by those in authority. Whether it is transport workers, teachers, health professionals, whoever, the ability to have any say in any situation is at issue: workers are just being ignored.

The workers speaking out on all the circumstances of life find themselves speaking against those who assume the right to speak in their name. The workers demand that their voice be heard; they are not to be ignored. They reject imposition by their employers. They also demand that their voice be reflected in the political arrangements and mechanisms of decision-making. They demand arrangements that guarantee their rights, and demand arrangements that guarantee them to have a say; to have, in fact, the decisive role in decision-making.

They require an economy that is not in contradiction with their interests or the general interests of society. There is a necessity for transport to take place. These workers create massive value - it is for this very reason that their employers want them to work, they want to claim that value - but the workers therefore have a claim first of all. They have rights, and also expectations that they work in a safe environment.

The transport networks that exist must be have the aim of fulfilling the general interest of society and the rights and interests of the transport workers safeguarded. It must not be that transport is directed to satisfying narrow priority interests. "The economy" is equated with narrow private interests, which of course are all in competition with each other. In contradiction with the general interests of society and people's well-being, these narrow private interests are made the central aim.

The workers demand that their voice be heard; they are not to be ignored.

Transport plays a vital role in production. Transport workers themselves produce value because they are, through their work, doing something of use for the rest of the economy. Not only that, but it is also the case that the rest of business is not paying for that value. Rather, it is funded through individual taxation or private customers' fares. Further, business, benefiting from that transport, does not concern itself with whether its activities are in the social interest. In every aspect, the present direction of the economy conflicts with the well-being of the transport workers and the entire population. A change in direction is required.

What is laid down by the government as "guidelines" and "rules" amounts to nothing if it is just made an individual matter about workers staying at home where they can. It immediately comes into contradiction with, and acts to conceal, these powerful private interests who run transport saying: you must come to work.

The key is for the workers to mobilise themselves around the demand to change the direction of the economy and for a solution in which people speak in their own name. It is the people themselves who have to be part of, must make themselves part of, solving the problem.

Statements of Mick Cash, RMT General Secretary

RMT General Secretary Mick Cash

On February 2, RMT General Secretary Mick Cash wrote to TfL Commissioner Andy Byford condemning its guidance that workers in affected postcodes should come into work, saying:

"Your position, in clear contradiction of the government's statement, has understandably caused mass dismay and anxiety among London Underground and TfL members and we are dealing with the consequences of that now. You appear to be calling people to come to work who have just been urged by the government to stay at home, putting themselves, their families, communities and work colleagues at risk in the process.

"This is totally unacceptable. You need to take back control of this situation rapidly. I am asking that you write to all TfL staff now amending this guidance to reflect the government's position before this situation escalates any further."

Then on February 4, he wrote to the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, demanding action. He said:

"RMT members want to support the government approach to halting the spread of this variant, but can only do this by staying at home until their testing is complete and they are informed that it is safe to return to their normal work pattern. It is therefore highly irresponsible of their employers to be advising them to do otherwise, particularly as research has shown that a third of those with the virus do not have symptoms and as many of these staff work in public facing roles.

"I therefore write requesting that you urgently clarify your advice to transport employers whose staff live, or travel into, the relevant postcode areas."

Mick Cash said:

"I have written to the Transport Secretary demanding the government give clear advice to transport employers whose staff live, or travel into, areas that have been hit by the new South African strain of Coronavirus.

"Our members on TfL and Merseyrail are frontline workers who have kept transport running through a global pandemic in which Britain has been one of the hardest hit countries. They should not be put at further unnecessary risk.

"All we are asking for is that the government show consistency and clarity with the instructions Matt Hancock gave the public yesterday and direct these major transport organisations to follow the restrictions that are in place to help halt the spread of the virus."


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