Rescaling employment relations: key outcomes of change in the privatised rail industry

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

mode - rail, organisation - management, organisation - privatisation, organisation - workforce planning, place - europe


employment relations, privatising, rail industry, industrial disputes, collective bargaining


The past decade has witnessed a revival of interest in the role of labour in political and economic restructuring. Following a period in the 1980s and early 1990s when trade unions and employees were routinely portrayed as passive victims of corporate restructuring, the past ten years have seen a resurgence of work by geographers highlighting the continued agency of labour. Despite this ‘new labour geography’, however, there has been little empirical research examining the uneven development of employment relations at a broad industry level. We address this issue by examining the changing geography of employment regulation in the UK’s privatised rail industry. A major shift in the scale at which industrial relations are organised has taken place under privatisation, away from national collective bargaining to a system of localised company bargaining. On the basis of secondary data gathered from industry sources, we provide an initial assessment of key outcomes of employment change in the rail industry. Our analysis indicates that considerable disparities in pay and conditions exist between different groups of workers, companies, and regions, although these are perhaps less extreme than suggested by the unions. In addition, the number of industrial disputes has escalated in the aftermath of privatisation. Moreover, instead of the set piece national strikes that took place in the nationalised industry, the majority of this strike action has been conducted against particular operators at the local and regional scales, reflecting the logic of company-level bargaining. At the same time, the membership of the three main unions has actually increased in recent years against a backdrop of long-term decline, suggesting that the decentralisation of collective bargaining presents unions with opportunities as well as challenges.


Permission to publish the abstract has been given by Environment and Planning, copyright remains with them.