When is a negotiation not a negotiation? When both parties involved admit that on the one substantive issue involved, there is no movement. Here's the story.
In March this year, a ticket inspector working for ScotRail, the main provider of train services in Scotland (I suppose you might argue that the clue is in the name!) reduced a passenger to tears. This was a first on Britain's railways; normally it is late-running trains and cancellations that reduce passengers to tears, but on this occasion, sadly for Scott Lewis, the ticket inspector involved, he had got the whole thing completely wrong.
According to a "ScotRail spokesman", Mr Lewis "was dismissed on grounds of intimidating and aggressive behaviour towards a passenger, who was reduced to tears during the incident. Grounds also included having a complete disregard of the correct ticket procedures. The dismissal followed the ticket examiner refusing to accept that the customer was allowed free travel under a special ScotRail deal to promote a new route out of an airport. It is a longstanding, well-known arrangement".
The RMT stepped in on Lewis's behalf demanding his reinstatement and put the matter to ballot. According to ScotRail, the results were as follows: of the 2,200 RMT members employed by ScotRail and in response to the question, "Are you prepared to take strike action?" the number of votes cast was 819. Yes - 548; No - 264; Spoiled papers - 7. 65% of the members did not vote. Of those who did, the 'yes' vote is 24% of the overall membership.
The Morning Star, a newspaper that describes itself as "socialist", claimed that this result was "an overwhelming strike vote in support of Scott Lewis, who RMT claims had been unfairly dismissed for trying to help a passenger buy the correct ticket." I would venture that the use of the word "overwhelming" in this case might be a little adventurous, but there we are.
Members of RMT in ScotRail were scheduled to hold 24-hour strikes on December 22 and 24, and on sleeper services on December 21 and 23.
The summary might be as follows.
- Opinionated ticket inspector gets his facts wrong
- He then pursues his case with a customer to the extent that he reduces said customer to tears
- Which is caught on CCTV
- Customer complains
- RMT jump to their member's defence when, after due process, he is dismissed
- RMT call a ballot, as a result of which a strike is called just before Christmas, thus maximising the effects of their action.
There are various negotiating ploys and dilemmas at work here.
- First of all, the dispute has escalated to senior level on both sides. Steve Montgomery, the managing director of First ScotRail has now made a statement, effectively saying that there will be no reinstatement of the sacked employee, whilst, on the other side, Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT has also waded in with his side of things. This is often provocative and sometimes dangerous. It is best to try to resolve things at a lower level of authority, only bringing in the top boys in extreme circumstances or to sign a deal that has already been negotiated.
- Sanctions have been deployed on both sides. Much will depend on the strike take-up on the one side, and just how disrupted the train service in Scotland will be on the days in question on the other.
- Both sides have effectively signalled that, on the substantive issue, there will be no negotiation.
- The "line in the sand" talk on both sides reduces the chances of a "win-win" solution - perhaps a re-packaging of the sacking into punishment, then re-instatement after a period of re-training - that kind of thing.
- Both parties will be aware of the importance of "precedent" in this dispute. The RMT will want to make the strike stick and ScotRail will want to avoid concessions on substantive issues.
- It seems to me that there will be no winners in this. Customers - knackered; Unions - picking a fight on an issue that might well have been best left alone; Management - being seen by a proportion of their employees as bully-boys.
I shall watch with interest and am planning no train travel on the days in question!
It was announced on 19 December that, after significant talks between ScotRail and the RMT, the strikes were being called off. There are no details available yet on what the new offer contains and, significantly, there was no announcement made about Mr Lewis's future within the business.