This article was written before the recent suspension of the strikes on Southern. For comment on that, click here.
By a rail worker
Recent and ongoing disputes across several train companies represent the most significant levels of workers' struggle in the railway industry for some time.
On Southern, guards in the RMT are midway through a five-day strike to defend the safety-critical nature of their role, in a long-running dispute that has already seen several strikes. RMT is now balloting station staff members in a separate dispute over attempts by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), Southern's parent company, o restructure their role by collapsing distinct station roles into a generic role of “station host”. RMT's ballot closes on 16 August. TSSA is also balloting its members, most of whom are ticket-office-based, leading to possible joint action.
After an earlier ballot was knocked back by the High Courts, Aslef is also balloting its members on Southern about the imposition of unacceptable rosters, and is also balloting its members on Gatwick Express, also owned by GTR, over similar issues. The ballots close on 31 August. This creates the potential for action right across different grades and areas of work on Southern, which could shut them down completely.
This kind of escalation and spreading of disputes is absolutely the correct response to a clearly viciously anti-union employer, who has effectively launched a labour war against its own staff, punishing them for taking legitimate industrial action by removing certain staff benefits. The three unions need to maximise coordination in order to maximise the impact on the employer.
Virgin Trains East Coast
RMT members on VTEC have just returned a resounding majority, on a high turnout, for strikes. 84% supported strikes and 90% backed action short of strikes, on a turnout of 62%, easily beating the stipulations of the Tories' impending Trade Union Act.
VTEC wants to restructure work in its ticket offices and travel centres, threatening nearly 200 jobs. TSSA has also suggested it will ballot its members at VTEC over similar issues. RMT has demanded VTEC commits to guaranteeing no compulsory redundancies, no job cuts, and no loss of pay for any worker affected by the restructure. It has also demanded that VTEC commits to a safety-critical guard being present on every train in the future.
RMT members on Eurostar will strike from 12-15 and 27-29 August, with TSSA members striking on 14-15 and 28-29 August. The dispute centres on on-board train managers, who are demanding that Eurostar continue to honour a 2008 agreement guaranteeing work/life balance.
RMT's strike ballot returned a 95% majority for action. Although we can expect a barrage of negative coverage in the media about the impact on holidaymakers, it is perfectly legitimate for workers to plan strikes at a time when it will have the greatest impact on the employers' business. None of us enjoy inconveniencing the public, but withdrawing our labour is our most fundamental tool, and we cannot hold back from using it.
There have also been strikes recently on ScotRail, where workers struck seven times in June and July in a dispute against Driver Only Operation which secured some concessions from the company.
The past two years have also seen disputes and campaigns on Northern Rail and MerseyRail over the issue of DOO, as well as the Network Rail pay dispute, which took us to the brink of the first national rail strikes since the 1990s.
Many of the current disputes, on GTR, VTEC, and elsewhere, are linked by the issues of DOO and wider job cuts, with Train Operating Companies (TOCs), in the wake of the McNulty Report, looking to de-staff, de-skill, and downgrade, replacing skilled, safety-critical workers with increasingly casualised ways of working. The potential now exists for a nationally-coordinated rail strike across multiple companies over these issues. Unions should coordinate with that aspiration in mind, and not only by waiting for TOCs to announce the extension of DOO, but going on the offensive by demanding, at Company Council level if appropriate, that TOCs commit not to extend DOO, and immediately declaring disputes if such a commitment is not forthcoming.
The new political situation in the labour movement, with Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party and the wider left-wing surge in Labour, means that a national railworkers' strike could have an electrifying political effect. Not only would it radically reassert the visibility of organised labour as a social force, educating a new generation of activists about the central role of workplace organisation and workers' struggle as the key motor of social change, but it could also be accompanied by a national political campaign, led by the Labour Party, for public ownership of the railways.
The rail unions' joint “Action for Rail” campaign has done a reasonable job of maintaining a low level of public activity in favour of renationalisation, but, with the best will in the world, this has been limited and run mainly through unions' head offices rather than driven by rank-and-file members at workplace or branch level. The main rail unions, all of which have links with Labour (either through direct affiliation, as in the cases of Aslef and TSSA, or through a Parliamentary Group, as with the RMT) should be demanding the Labour launches its own national campaign for public ownership, building on “Action for Rail” but developing much further, with high-profile public meetings, rallies, and a national demonstration.
Such a campaign would be the ideal bridge between rail workers and rail users: it doesn't take a genius to work out that the cuts against which workers are striking have their root cause in privatisation. A publicly-owned railway run on the basis of social need rather than the profit motive would look very different to our current one, and is in the interests both of those who work on the railway and those who use it (not that these two groups are entirely distinct, of course!).
These strikes are still largely defensive, looking to resist attacks by the bosses rather than attempting to claim new ground, but building towards nationally-coordinated strikes, supplemented and galvanised by a national political campaign for renationalisation, could help our class launch a counter-offensive.