July has seen a number of interesting and potentially important developments in the ongoing dispute between rail unions and the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and the government over Driver Only Operation (DOO).
Since RMT strike action on July 8th (Northern, Southern and Merseyrail), 9th (Northern only) and 10th (Northern and Merseyrail), the union has moved closer to a dispute on the issue with South West Trains and has declared a dispute with Greater Anglia. It now seems increasingly likely that we will see co-ordinated action by RMT members across huge portions of the national rail network. In addition, GTR, the TOC responsible for the Southern franchise, attempted to resolve the stalemate between itself and drivers’ union Aslef by offering an attractive pay increase (23.8% over 4 years) to drivers on the condition that they concede the DOO dispute by agreeing to operating all services without a second safety-critical member of staff.
Encouragingly, given Aslef leadership’s recent attempts to sell out its members on Southern, the union balloted its members for strikes over pay, and won the necessary mandate, scheduling three strike dates in August. It is likely that this was part of the government and GTR’s plan, as they wasted no time in using the right wing press to attack the union’s members as being greedy for turning down such a large payrise, disregarding the strings that were being attached to it. Nevertheless, Aslef have seemed undeterred by this. Then there is the partial legal victory by the Association of British Commuters, which forced the Department for Transport to finalise its decision on GTR Southern’s claim of force majeure relating to the delays and cancellations caused by industrial action.
In the end, Southern were fined a paltry £13.4m, millions of which are being handed back as part of “remedial plans”, including extra funding for staff despite its business model of deliberate understaffing being responsible for most of the problems in the first place. These developments might have something to do with the fact that Tory Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has now agreed to meet with both RMT and Aslef to seek a resolution to the Southern disputes, despite insisting since the beginning that it was nothing to do with him and was a matter for the unions and the TOC to resolve between themselves. The meeting with Aslef took place on 20 July, the one with RMT a day later.
True to recent form, Aslef are saying next to nothing about what was discussed. RMT are a little more forthcoming, explaining that they were to lay out proposals for a resolution and would be seeking further meetings with the TOCs and with Grayling to move towards resolution. The August strike dates scheduled by both unions remain “suspended”. The most recent strike action over DOO was by RMT guards at Merseyrail on 23 July, timed to coincide with the Open Golf tournament at Birkdale.
Once again, Merseyrail workers were 100% united in taking part in the action, with every single Aslef driver rostered to work on the day refusing to cross the picket lines. This amazing solidarity — in the face of the Aslef leadership’s refusal to formally enter the dispute either there or on Northern — has been a feature of the DOO dispute at Merseyrail, and puts workers there at a great advantage compared to those at Southern and Northern.
A move by Aslef members at those companies to respect RMT picket lines could be vital in forcing concessions from the employers. Despite Aslef members at Southern twice rejecting sell-out deals brokered by their leaders there has, as yet, been no significant move to take more control of the dispute by using RMT picket lines to take action, despite unheeded calls for Aslef to reinstate strikes. At Northern, though, there are signs that drivers may be taking small steps towards the stance of their counterparts at Merseyrail. The number of Aslef drivers respecting the picket lines showed an increase for the first time on 8 July. It is to be hoped that this trend continues.