Tens of thousands of rail workers are taking part in the biggest strike for decades. The industrial action by members of the RMT union is over pay and redundancies.
The RMT says it wants a pay rise to match the cost of living and has called an offer of 2% – with the possibility of another 1% – “unacceptable”.
There have been lots of claims about how much rail workers are paid. Let’s start with the highest figure quoted.
How much are train drivers paid?
In a debate about the strikes in Parliament on 15 June, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “The median salary for a train driver is £59,000, compared with £31,000 for a nurse and £21,000 for a care worker.”
To work out the median salary, if you put all train drivers in a row in order of their pay, the person in the middle of the row would be earning the median.
Mr Shapps is mostly right on these figures, which come from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
For 2021, the median salary for train and tram drivers was £59,189 and for nurses it was £31,093.
His figure for care workers is a bit high. The median for care workers and home carers was £16,502 and for senior care workers it was £20,105.
The trouble with using the figure for train drivers in a debate about the RMT strikes is that the drivers are represented by their own union, Aslef – which is not taking part in the national strike.
Aslef says it represents 96% of train drivers – most of the remaining 4% are not union members at all.
Aslef drivers are set to strike on Greater Anglia services on 23 June. It is also balloting for action on several other lines.
Mr Shapps went on to say: “The median salary for the rail sector is £44,000, which is significantly above the median salary in the country.”
We asked the Department for Transport (DfT) how it got to this figure and it initially said it had taken the median figures from the ONS for four categories of workers, added them up and divided by four:
- Rail travel assistants – £33,310 – includes ticket collectors, guards and information staff
- Rail construction and maintenance operatives – £34,998 – they lay and repair tracks
- Rail transport operatives – £48,750 – includes signallers and drivers’ assistants
- Train and tram drivers – £59,189
This wouldn’t have produced a median figure and the DfT subsequently got in touch to say they had actually got the figure from the ONS, which had produced a genuine median figure (£43,747) across everybody in those four categories, along with a fifth – workers who build and repair engines and carriages (their median salary is £46,753).
It has also produced a median figure excluding train drivers – who are not involved in the RMT strike – of £36,800.
Mr Shapps is right that the figure is above the median pay for all employees in the UK, which was £25,971 last year.
The RMT figure of £33,000
The RMT union says the figures used by the government are too high because they include train drivers who are almost all represented by a different union and not people like cleaners who are not categorised in the ONS figures as rail workers.
The RMT says 10,000 of its members are cleaners.
It says that if you take the £44,000 figure, exclude the drivers and include cleaning staff you get a median figure of £33,000, which better reflects the pay of the people going on strike.
A median figure of £31,000 has also been cited by RMT general secretary Mick Lynch.
We asked the union for its exact workings and which is the correct figure, but have not received a response.
It’s hard to judge the figures without that information. We know from the ONS that excluding the drivers brings the figure down to £36,800 and adding a number of lower-paid staff such as cleaners to the calculation would certainly produce a lower figure.
Has pay gone up by 40%?
Speaking about pay for rail workers, Mr Shapps said there had been a “nearly 40% increase in salaries over the last 10 years”.
The ONS calculated a median figure for those same five categories of rail workers in 2011, which came out at £35,329. In 2021 the figure was £43,747.
That means there was an increase of 24% over the last 10 years, not 40%. It’s similar to the 23% increase for all employees over the same period. Inflation over that decade was about 20%.
Remember that for the people actually involved in this week’s strike the increase will be lower, because this figure includes a 39% increase in pay for the train drivers, who are largely not represented by the RMT.
We have asked DfT how it worked out the nearly 40% increase but have not heard back.
Shapps claim about Keir Starmer
On the BBC’s Sunday Morning political programme, Mr Shapps also claimed that Labour leader Keir Starmer “was behind the scenes encouraging the unions to go on strike”.
He made a similar claim in a tweet, which linked to a Mail on Sunday article, based on leaked minutes from Labour’s National Executive Committee.
According to the article, the leaked minutes said: “On possible action on the railways he [Keir] said it was wrong for the government to restrict the right to strike.”
Opposing government measures to restrict the right to strike is not the same as encouraging unions to strike.
A Labour spokesperson responded: “Keir has been very clear that these strikes should not go ahead.”