Members of the RMT union on Southern Rail have struck again, this time for five days, as they continue their battle to defend the role of the guard. Southern, which is owned by Govia Thameslink Railway, a train company which operates other services, including Gatwick Express, wants to de-skill the guard's role, meaning the safety-critical on-board tasks would be carried out by the driver only.
Unions say that this would hit passenger safety. Prior to the strike, the RMT wrote to Southern offering to suspend the action in exchange for a commitment from the company that current competency and safety-critical qualification levels of guards would not be downgraded. The union recently suspended planned strikes on ScotRail in exchange for a similar offer. Southern bosses have refused to budge. The Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) is also balloting its members on Southern for strikes against Southern's plans to close ticket offices. RMT members working in ticket offices are also balloting, in a vote due to close on 16 August. Drivers' union Aslef is also balloting for strikes, this time over issues including roster changes, after a previous ballot against Driver Only Operation was knocked back by the High Court.
The Southern dispute is now the longest-running continuous dispute in the British railway industry since 1968. Labour's Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald placed the blame squarely at the feet of the Tory government, saying: “The country’s biggest rail franchise is failing. Passengers are enduring the worst delays in the country, fares are up 25% and promised investment looks further away than ever, yet the Tory government seems more interested in pursuing an ideological dust-up with rail unions than improving abysmal passenger services.” Speaking at a recent rally in Brighton, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “I want to see Southern back in public ownership. I don't believe it's fulfilling its obligations under the franchise it was given.“
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Corbyn said: “Long before Southern Rail cut over 300 services it is legally contracted to deliver, its passengers were facing a woefully inadequate service: delays, overcrowding, cancellations, late running trains were the norm. Yet instead of recognising the plight of millions of passengers and telling Southern Rail where to get off, the Government continues to support them with our money. “That's why Labour's pledge to return the railways into public ownership is the right one.”
Job cuts on East Coast
As Solidarity went to press on 9 August, a result was expected in an RMT ballot for strikes on Virgin Trains East Coast services. The union is fighting against plans to cut jobs in travel centres and ticket offices. RMT accused Virgin bosses of “putting out regular propaganda messages to their employees to justify the company's attempts to attack job security, terms and conditions of employment and current working practices.”
Oil rig workers fight 30% pay cut
Workers on eight oil rigs in the north sea run by the Wood Group have struck to stop a 30% pay cut.
The workers struck for 24 hours on Tuesday 26 July and for 48 hours from 4-5 August. Members of Unite and RMT were balloted in June over the changes to pay and conditions with a pay cut of 22% which is more like 30% when changes to other benefits are taken into account. Wood Group has also shifted workers from a two-week work schedule to a three-week one, leaving them with more time away from their families.
The strike is the first in the North Sea in three decades, and workers argue they are being made to pay for the recent dip in oil prices despite oil companies continuing to make huge profits. Unite regional officer John Boland said: "However, the solid actions this week and the support that the workers received is a clear demonstration of the strength of feeling and their resolve to resist these attacks on pay and allowances.
"The workforce is clearly of the view that enough is enough.
"Wood Group needs to drop the cuts and get back round the table with us if it genuinely wants to avoid further industrial action."
Workers are planning more strikes on a rolling programme across the different rigs between 15 August and 3 September."
How not to save jobs
Last week the Camden New Journal reported that in some schools in Camden, north London, as many as one in four teachers was leaving at the end of this academic year. That’s a wild underestimation. In at least two schools it’s more like half. And the national and regional union has done little to support their struggles.
At Regent High School, staff were told in the summer term — after the peak resignation and recruitment time that happens around Easter — that there would be a restructure in order to bring down costs. As previously reported in Solidarity, the proposals made five senior teachers and pastoral leaders redundant, as well as deleting the roles of support staff in positions of pastoral responsibility, and creating new support staff roles to cover both.
The school union group acted quickly, calling joint meetings with Unison, bringing in regional representatives of the NUT and undertaking an indicative ballot for strike action to save jobs and defend conditions and also wrote to governors and requested a more detailed breakdown of the school’s budget.
The timing of the restructuring, which was defended on the basis of needing to clear changes with the incoming Headteacher, left staff facing redundancy in a vulnerable position. Action needed to be very quick in order to stop the redundancies before the end of term. An indicative ballot showed overwhelming support for a timetable of six days of strike action, with only five members voting against out of 48.
A postal ballot was then held, which was not easy to organise, with 84% of members voting in favour of strikes. There was a backlash from school leadership, who urged members unhappy with the result to directly email union officials. This ruffled the feathers of union officials such as Camden branch secretary, Andrew Baisley, who was concerned that there was a growing lack of unity in the union group and (probably) feared losing members. Ballots were not passed on to the union’s action committee until far too late in the term.
Meanwhile, a series of processes were going on which severely undermined it. Understandably concerned about their careers and futures, members who faced redundancy were meeting with the Head and Baisley to negotiate their terms of exit. It does not seem that Baisley tried to dissuade them from leaving, instead trying to get good deals for them. This is a normal part of the redundancy process and the lack of forced redundancies cannot reasonably seen as a “victory” for the union group.
At the same time, the school began to internally advertise, interview and recruit for the new pastoral leader positions, thus avoiding the redundancies of the support staff that were in the restructuring document. This was a terrible move in terms of undermining the reason for a strike and was extremely cynical from leadership and governors in terms of dividing and conquering the different union groups in the school (those who got these new jobs were Unison members). The sluggishness from regional representatives, and the final decision from the national union not to support the strike, was a horrendous betrayal of the group. which is now fighting to get the active and most militant members to remain in the union — and officials worried that action would have been “divisive”!
Derby TAs fight on
Teaching assistants in Derby fighting the imposition of a worse contract are planning more strikes in September and October. Derbyshire county council wants to move teaching assistants from their current 52-week-a-year contracts onto term-time only contracts which would see workers losing up to 23% of their wages, between £1,000 and £5,000 a year. Teaching assistants have staged several demonstrations and protests in the past few months, and have recently got the support of Jeremy Corbyn.
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