London Midland

Submitted by Off The Rails on 2 July, 2009 - 10:55

London Midland conductors based at Bletchley, Northampton and Watford took eight days of strike action to demand the right to opt out of Sunday working, but while they forced the company to back off, the issue may not yet be over.

The 120 conductors came from Central Trains or Silverlink - where Sunday working was voluntary - or were new starters, issued with a London Midland contract which did not include the right to opt out of Sundays.

With harmonisation talks far from over, LM jumped the gun and tried to impose rostered Sunday working. Whoever they worked for previously, the conductors united to defend this important working condition. A big majority voted Yes to strikes, and RMT called a series of actions starting mid-March. These were solid, and caused much disruption.

The company refused to back down, so the strike continued, RMT even opening up its hardship fund - usually locked shut - to help strikers. Branches around the country responded to an appeal to donate money.

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By mid-May, there was a clear need to escalate the action, so RMT put on an extra ballot for action short of strikes, and named two weekday strikes, on Tuesday 19 and Thursday 21 May. Lo and behold, management now put forward a Dispute Resolution Proposal.

The turning point seemed to be the naming of weekday strikes. Off the Rails has argued previously that Sunday strikes for operational grades can be ineffective, a lesson the union should have learned from campaigns such as on Virgin Cross Country a few years back. Companies tend to just ride them out, calling in their usual bus replacement service and getting the government to bail out their lost revenue. Sunday strikes affect working-class leisure travel more than capitalist production, so the rail company gets less pressure from business to settle the dispute. Just because a dispute is about Sunday working does not mean the strikes have to be on Sundays!

It looks like the declaration of two weekday walkouts in the same week finally defeated London Midland. It agreed to Sunday opt-out for all conductors and to talk to the union about harmonisation. RMT suspended the strikes and called off its 'action short' ballot.

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But LM's commitment only runs until the end of August. Most conductors felt that this was the best possible outcome in the circumstances, and agreed to it at one of several well-attended members' meetings that took place during the dispute.

But no-one is sure what will happen when the ceasefire expires if no decent agreement has been reached. The union advises us to "remain vigilant" and "await the outcome of talks", but that sound a bit passive. We must not sleepwalk through the summer, but get regular reports from negotiations, discuss strategy and keep the issue live. Members' meetings need to continue, and to be events where the rank and file tell union leaders what they want rather than automatically endorse what union officials have decided.

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