Transport Secretary Alistair Darling announced in November that Central Trains TOC would be broken up by May 2006 when its franchise expires. Well, that's what we all heard anyway. Unfortunately Central's managers must have thought he said 2005 because that is the only explanation for their recent behaviour. Put simply, it seems they have pressed the self-destruct button.
An abuse of the disciplinary procedure landed them with three days of strike action called by ASLEF for 12th, 19th and 26th of February, but later called off. RMT’s drivers successfully balloted for strike action too. Drivers are also operating an ongoing rest day working ban.
Management have been busy upsetting the guards too, and they are balloting for action over holiday entitlement. On top of all that, mass union meetings have crippled Sunday services. It is enough to make you think there is a lot of truth in comments ascribed to a top manager to the effect that the unions could strike as much as they liked it would not change his mind!
One example of management tactics is highly informative. In an effort to curb disruption caused by the rest day working ban, management introduced a reduced service timetable, arbitrarily cancelling some services irrespective of whether drivers are available or not. This led to the ludicrous situation of drivers being called off trains for the publicly-announced reason that there is no driver available due to industrial action!
But this is a strange industrial action which needed no ballot: unless Central are saying this is unofficial action; in which case, why haven't they hauled the union off to court? Just maybe, it has something to do with the fact that other franchises owned by National Express Group are up for renewal in 2008. NEG doesn't want the bad publicity that would come its way if it had to admit in court that Central's management is breaking safety rules and that by stopping rest day working, the union is upholding them.
The real agenda?
So why has Central's management launched this concerted attack? Maybe we can see their real agenda in an admission in a leaked document that the winding up of the franchise gives management "the ability to 'break up' some long-running industrial relations centres of influence" - union-busting to you and me. (This was also one of the stated advantages of rail privatisation in the 90s).
The SRA has given no undertaking that arrangements for 2006 will be carried out under TUPE and the recent appointment to top positions of two Scotrail managers with bad industrial relations reputations is cause for concern.
With post-2006 details hard to come by, RMT and ASLEF will initially have to concentrate on maintaining agreements and organisation. A successful defence of these will put us in a good position to deal with whatever the break-up throws at us.