EWS: the fight goes off the rails

Submitted by Janine on 27 February, 2005 - 10:43

In the last Off The Rails, we reported on the issues behind the strike on EWS, and the start of the workforce's determined campaign to defend jobs and conditions. We also told how the employer had used the anti-union laws to gain an injunction to stop RMT's strike action - and how RMT had appealed and won, and was all set to strike.

Now, EWS groundstaff are staring 81 job losses in the face, are seeing drivers taking on their work, have no recognised union reps, and though we are still in dispute, it no longer feels like we are part of a fightback.

How has this come about? What has happened over the last four months?

Solid striking

RMT initially called a strike for 30/31 October, then postponed it to allow for talks at ACAS. Predictably, EWS was not at all serious about talks, so RMT's 1,3000 engineering and groundstaff took strike action for 48 hours on the weekend of 6/7 November.

The strike was very well-supported, and very effective. RMT members at EWS at depots up and down the country heeded the strike call and made it clear to EWS that they could not push through their attacks on groundstaff jobs without a fight.

Where local RMT members set up picket lines, we were able to ensure that the action was solid and lively.

Unfortunately, some depots did not organise pickets, which is - in OTR's opinion - a mistake. Even if you think that all your members will be solid, the physical presence of a picket line will underline this, and will help bring members of other unions into the action. The absence of a picket line is an open invitation to scab.

Sadly, ASLEF sat out the strike, and the Confed (Amicus plus smaller unions) not only advised its members to cross picket lines, but even let them be moved to other depots to work in RMT members' jobs.

Nevertheless, the weekend strike was a big morale-booster, and we were up for continuing a fight. It looked like the company was on the back foot, and they came back to the negotiating table. No new strike dates were named for a while.

Wot no reps?

Meanwhile, EWS's machinery of negotiation with the unions was coming to an end at the close of the year, as the Confed had served notice that it wanted out. Management seized on this opportunity to cancel union reps' release, and RMT groundstaff reps have since found themselves back on the roster, not released even to attend talks on the dispute.

RMT should have said to EWS: "If our rank-and-file reps can't attend the talks, then no-one from our union is coming." It should be ABC that unions are represented by workers from the job, and that the union does not let the company tell it who is on its negotiating team.

Instead, union officials went to the negotiations, and it appeared to rank-and-file EWS workers that head office was taking over the running of the dispute.

But the fight was still on, and RMT called a strike over Christmas. It was a good time to take action. Loads of engineering work and freight movement is usually done over Christmas, and - unlike on passenger rail services - striking over the festive period would hit the employers, not the public. And it was one in the eye for the EWS managers who got hampers and £600 bonuses for scabbing on the previous strike.

Gloves off

But then the company got nasty again. It told its employees that as Christmas was more than eight weeks after the start of their dispute, they would be sacked if they went on strike. (This is legally allowed - the 8-week period was a 'crumb' introduced by the Labour government.)

RMT's leadership tried to shore up members' courage with a personal letter from Bob Crow. But, with their livelihoods at stake and feeling uninformed and out of control of their own action, workers' confidence was slipping. The Christmas strike was called off.

Now the union and the workforce are on the back foot. As RMT continues to try to defend its members, EWS has excluded it from the interim negotiating set-up and from talks about drivers' duties.

Although no agreement has been made, EWS is pushing through its changes. Drivers are taking over some groundstaff duties, for example doing run-rounds. EWS has asked for volunteers for redundancy to help it achieve 81 job cuts.

It may still be possible to salvage something from this dispute, so we should not give up the fight. But we need to learn the lessons.

Lessons to learn

  • If you are up against an aggressively anti-union employer, then you have to fight fire with fire. With an employer like that, goodwill gestures win you no favours.
  • When we strike, picket effectively and work hard to get the other unions involved.
  • Rank-and-file workers should run the dispute. The union should set up strike committees elected from each workplace rather than just sending in full-time officials.
  • Keep the workforce informed. We get loads of biased rubbish from the employer, and usually some from the press for good measure. We need information and updates from each other and from our negotiators.
  • We should not allow ourselves to become too reliant on full-time release for reps. Of course the union should defend its reps' release, and reps must be able to attend talks. But we can't let management use release as a weapon against us, or our fight could be mortally wounded if the company takes the release away.

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