EWS is on a crusade to introduce a new driver restructuring initiative. Most traincrew will be familiar with these - drivers' pay goes up, but with it comes extra duties, more anti-social hours, worse conditions, and wholesale attacks on other grades.
EWS is touting an offer of £40k + £5k in bonuses for drivers. But that is for a 45-hour week, with drivers taking on rolling stock technicians' duties, train preparation and other work. The train crew Company Council reps - and the drivers - have rejected this.
Groundstaff know that this offer would further encroach on their work. Although the company claims it has no intention of attacking groundstaff jobs, we don't believe them. After all, they have already sent new drivers on shunters' courses.
RMT votes to fight
RMT members resolved to put up a fight, and voted 411-346 (54%) to strike, and 570-186 (75%) for industrial action short of strike. The union called two weekends of strike action (9/10 and 16/17 October) and a ban on overtime, rest day working and higher-grade working from Saturday 9 October.
Rather than accept the will of the workforce (heaven forbid), EWS dug in and played dirty. It cancelled RMT reps' release, not even releasing them from work to attend negotiations.
Then the company crawled to the courts and obtained an injunction banning the strike. The judge ruled that the strike could not go ahead because RMT had not notified both EWS and EWSI of the impending action.
Huh? EWSI? Who?! The employer reckons that EWSI (the ‘I’ is for International, apparently) is a separate company, which operates in the terminals - EWS operating, well, everywhere else.
The full absurdity of this ruling is in the fact that to notify both of the “two” employers, RMT would have had to send two letters to the same person in the same office!
Once we had got over the shock of finding out that separate companies even existed, everyone understood that any difference between them is purely technical - it probably suits their accountants, and now we find that it helps them to get strikes banned too.
The law serves bosses
The injunction was proof - if we needed it - that the courts are not there to uphold justice, fairness or morality (any more than the police are there to help old ladies across the road). They are there to do the employer's bidding, and stop us fighting back.
Over the last two decades, our unions have been shackled by a series of laws designed to stop us fighting for workers' rights - exhaustive ballot procedures, bans on 'political' strikes and solidarity action, limits on numbers of pickets. Introduced by the Tories, these laws are now being kept on the statute books by New Labour.
But although EWS won the legal battle, it did not win the war, as the union won at Appeal and got the injunction overturned and the strike declared legal. This does not prove that the law is fair after all - rather, that there are some injustices so blatant that even the courts can’t uphold them, and that even a corrupt system gets it right sometimes. It also shows that even when employers can’t use the law to stop a strike, they can use it to stall it and undermine it.
This is the start of what could be a bitter struggle. Attacks and propaganda from management have incensed rank-and-file workers and galvanised us to fight. Even if we had had to re-ballot, we would have got a bigger majority!
Keeping up the fight
We need the other unions on board with this fight. ASLEF has voted overwhelmingly to reject the driver restructuring. Now it must turn that vote into action - not allowing the Society's internal turmoil to paralyse it when the members need a fight. Groundstaff and engineers are organised by RMT, but ASLEF represents the majority of EWS drivers. The two unions should strike together.
The CSEU (confed union) looks less promising. In the run-up to RMT's abortive strike, it mailed members advising them to cross picket lines and work normally. Time for its rank-and-file members to revolt and assert of basic trade union principles!
The grades must stick together too - for example, defying EWS's attempts to exclude groundstaff union reps from talks on driver restructuring. And there must be no short-sighted money-grabs which worsen conditions for others.
We are not finished with this issue. The members feel bitter, and we want to take the employers on.