How the ruling class sees the anti-DOO strikes: let's prove them wrong!

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By a rail worker

The Financial Times is, or aspires to be, one of the more serious newspapers of the boss class. Reading it can normally give you a reasonable sense of what at least a section of "the establishment" is thinking about a given issue. And a recent article on the strikes against Driver Only Operation makes for rather grim reading for our side.

The article, by the FT's Transport Correspondent Robert Wright, runs as follows (click here for an image of the article):

"Peter Wilkinson is being praised at the Department for Transport and by Conservative politicians for calling it right in the department's fight to modernise the rail network.

"Back in February 2015 he announced he was ready to take on Aslef, the train drivers' union, by referring to them as 'muppets' and openly stating that they lacked the courage for a fight.

"There is now anger being expressed in certain quarters to the time and money wasted in taking Aslef to court to prevent drivers taking strike action. It is felt that had Wilkinson been listened to then, the dispute with Aslef would have been over months ago.

"Aslef suspended their dispute after six days of strike action before having to go 'cap in hand' to Govia Thameslink willing to accept any terms necessary to end the dispute. What they were offered and agreed to recommend to their members for acceptance after protracted talks at the TUC was an offer reportedly refused by the RMT months previously.

"This offer was only narrowly rejected by Aslef members, reinforcing the view of politicians that if the DfT had listneed to Wilkinson's advice the dispute with Aslef could've been resolved by the middle of 2016.

"Confidence is high at the DfT that the same offer that was narrowly rejected by the drivers will be accepted after being re-written.

"There is impatience at the department to get on with the job of implementing the recommendations made in the McNulty report which will enable the train operators to get value for money from the drivers after decades of Aslef using their industrial muscle to dictate terms to the TOCs.

"The question being asked is why were Aslef allowed for years to continue dictating terms when Peter Wilkinson has been telling anyone that would isten that they would not be up for the fight.

"The DfT, now they have 'humiliated' Aslef, are keen to ensure no further time is lost in ensuring that train drivers are seen to be offering value for what are viewed as excessive salaries.

"They argue, in line with the McNulty report, that with the many safety features now available on trains that the driver's workload can be modernised to better reflect the high salaries paid to them.

"The DfT believes this will start to provide the hard pressed commuters with the value for money service that has been denied to them by militant rail unions over past decades.

"The deal will also be welcomed by Conservative MPs in marginal constituencies who have been under unrelenting pressure from their constituents over the past year.

"The only uncertainty within the DfT is whether Aslef's capitulation after only six days of strike action reflect the attitude of the union nationally, or if it was just recognition by Aslef leadership that there was no stomach for a fight within Southern drivers and so surrender was the best option in the south.

"There is some concern that the decision not to engage in a battle in the south might have been a tactical decision to protect their finances so they can support members in other areas where the drivers might still be prepared to put up a fight.

"Irrespective of Aslef's ability to offer some level of resistance in the future, after this success in the south east which has given Govia the authority to demand value for money from their drivers, politicians will expect the DfT to push ahead with their modernisation plans in all other train operating companies."

Let us set aside, and with all due respect to Mr. Wright (who is perhaps a fellow trade union member himself), that, in my admittedly amateur opinion, that the quality of journalism would embarrass a first-year undergraduate writing for a student union newspaper. His Twitter profile tells us he is only "filling in temporarily" in the role of Transport Correspondent, so we can perhaps forgive him some of the infelicities of style. His pinned tweet, which condemns Jeremy Corbyn's "awful policies", and says he'll be a "managerial disaster", gives us some insight into Mr. Wright's own political allegiances.

Let us set aside also the fact that the whole thing reads like it has been fed to Mr. Wright directly from a source inside the DfT, and perhaps inside Peter Wilkinson's office.

And let us finally set aside that the article's claims of "militant unions" which have "dictated terms" in the rail industry "for years" are, sadly, rather wide of the mark.

Notwithstanding the above, the general content of this article is worth taking seriously.

Off The Rails covered Peter Wilkinson's remarks at the time, urging our fellow rail workers to "prove his expectations of strikes correct, and his expectation of the outcome wrong!" There have indeed been strikes, but, as the article points out, "only" six days. That is clearly well within the boundaries of what bosses and the government were prepared to ride out.

The article makes clear that rail industry bosses see the reworked deal on Southern, which will shortly go before Aslef members, as essentially identical to the one rejected previously. Their assessment is: if the deal is accepted, we'll get everything we want on Southern, for the loss of only six days of joint strikes, and if we hadn't bothered taking Aslef to court they probably would've run out steam even sooner and we'd have saved ourselves a few bob!

The article affirms something we all already knew, that the push to impose DOO is part of an industry-wide, government-backed offensive to implement the recommendations of McNulty, which amount to an assault on staffing levels. If they win on Southern, that assault will surely gather pace.

The story the bosses are telling themselves is undoubtedly contradictory: our unions are so obstructively militant that they need to be crushed, yet also so tamely submissive that they can be expected to roll over after only token resistance. It's a muddled picture, but what is clear is that, if the new deal on Southern passes, the bosses will consider themselves to have scored a victory, and one which is, moreover, "humiliating" for us.

We must ensure they are not proven right. Aslef members should reject the sell-out deal when it is brought back to them for voting, and the union should prove that it is a militant force capable of leveraging its industrial muscle to "dictate terms" to rail bosses and the government. That should be done alongside its sister union, RMT.

Indeed, the existence of the RMT complicates the bosses' perspective somewhat. RMT members on Southern have taken a month of aggregated strike action to Aslef's six days, beginning long before Aslef entered the fray. RMT members have now struck on Northern and MerseyRail too, with Aslef yet to get out of the traps on those TOCs. Off the Rails is a platform for all rail workers, whichever union they're in, and we have no interest in inter-union rivalries or tribalism. We do, however, believe strongly in industrial unionism: one union in the rail industry that organises all workers, of all grades. The FT article inadvertently makes the case for such a union: imagine if the DfT and the TOCs had been facing a single, united union, rather than being able to exploit the existence of separate ones.

We hope that the experience of the DOO battle has persuaded a few Aslef members that their fundamental interests are as railway workers, shared with other workers in other grades and functions, and not as part of an imagined grade-based elite. A mass exodus of Aslef members into RMT is unlikely, and may not be productive in the circumstances: far better for Aslef members who want to take the fight to the bosses to organise within their union to oppose sell-out deals; get the union into dispute on Northern, MerseyRail, and other TOCs; and begin making the arguments for industrial unity.

I am not suggesting that "more strikes" represents an adequate strategy that, by itself, might win the anti-DOO fight. The TOCs and their DfT backers are unlikely to have a fixed, magic number of strike days they could survive, after which point they'll crumble. The old adage "the longer the picket line, the shorter the strike" should serve us well here: the only thing that stands any chance of tipping the balance is a campaign of strikes across as many TOCs as possible, with a common, coordinated strategy between Aslef and RMT and a commitment that neither union will settle the dispute without agreement with the other. Political action is needed too; unions and the Labour Party should organise and mobilise passenger support for public ownership.

(Off The Rails previously explored some of the arguments around building towards a national rail strike in August 2016: click here for more.)

As things stand, the bosses think they have "humiliated" us: let's prove them wrong! Keep the fight alive, no to DOO!

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