Rail workers on Southern Rail will strike for 14 days across three months, with strikes planned for 11-13 and 18-20 October, 3-5 and 22-23 November, and 6-8 December.
The workers, who are members of the RMT union, are fighting to defend the safety-critical role of the guard. Southern, which is owned by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR, which also operates the Gatwick Express franchise), wants to de-skill the guard's role to make it non-safety-critical, meaning that only the driver would have responsibility for tasks such as opening and closing doors.
The long-running dispute has become increasingly bitter due to Southern bosses' determination to break the union. Prior to previous strikes, they removed staff travel passes and parking permits. Now, they have offered conductors a £2,000 bribe to sell their job and accept new contracts in the new, non-safety-critical role of "On-Board Supervisor". Southern has said that if the RMT does not accept its latest offer, it will impose it by sacking its entire conductor workforce and only re-engaging them if they accept the new roles.
This tactic was used by several local authorities in the early years of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, and was most recently threatened by the Greater Manchester Fire Authority. It represents an explosive escalation of what is already perhaps the most fiercely fought industrial dispute of the last five years.
A publicity offensive against the RMT in the media, which included taking out double-page adverts in national newspapers, spectacularly backfired on Southern when social media users responded to its call for passengers to tweet their views on the strike to the RMT by overwhelmingly supporting the union.
Southern recently posted profits of £100 million, and received an additional £20 million handout from the government. Passenger anger continues to grow and, judging from the response to Southern's ill-judged publicity stunt, is directed squarely at the bosses rather than the workers. Off The Rails, the rail workers' blog published by supporters of Workers' Liberty working on the railway, said:
"The dispute on Southern is now, in effect, a labour war, and has to be fought as such. Southern workers have shown immense resolve in the face of a vicious campaign of bullying and intimidation from their employer. Southern bosses have pilloried and defamed their own staff in the national press, and are now attempting to bribe them to sell their terms and conditions. De-skilling the role of the guard is the thin end of a wedge. The end goal is de-staffing and job cuts.
“The RMT is absolutely right to step up the action, and should be exploring any and all means, including strike pay, to sustain it and escalate it further if necessary. Strikes should be coordinated with action on other Train Operation Companies, including Virgin Train East Coast and London Underground.
“Rail unions and the Labour Party should call a national demonstration for rail renationalisation, with Southern and VTEC strikers — as well as passengers' groups — speaking from the platform."
Virgin Trains East Coast strike
Workers on Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) struck on Monday 3 October, in the latest show of resistance to rail bosses' attempts to de-skill and de-staff.
VTEC is proposing a number of changes to workers' terms and conditions, which it says will see "a single person take responsibility for the customer experience on our trains".
Rail union RMT says that the plans threaten around 200 frontline jobs.
Ritzy strikes back
The first strike day at the Ritzy cinema [Saturday 24 September] went really well.
We closed the cinema all day. We got almost every single member of staff out on strike. We got the projection department, junior managers, and the kitchen. Two years ago the kitchen didn't come out, and it's very positive that they did this time. We had a great picket event. We had a kids' club which was well received — we did balloon modelling and I got to practice my face painting. The response from the Brixton community was really good. We had about 40 workers participate in the picket over the course of the day.
Management pulled down the shutters on the strike day — that was symbolic. I think that is their attitude. They are hoping this is going to be a flash in the pan and that we'll run out of steam. But it's clear that we're having an effect — because they've moved the London film festival films from the Ritzy in advance of the next strike. But they won't be able to ignore us forever. When the ballot result comes back from Hackney Picturehouse and the ballot starts at Central, they'll hopefully respond differently.
We know management are afraid of us. Managers at every single Picturehouse in the country have been instructed to forbid us from coming in and talking to the workers there — they are afraid we are going to galvanise them!
We have been visiting the other sites in London. People know it's happening. Every time I go to a different site, people ask us about it, and they're interested. We're turning it from something that might happen into something that has happened, and that's had a psychological impact. People from Hackney and Central have come to the Ritzy picket lines, and that was really positive.
We're being invited to go and speak to staff from more and more sites. The relationships are getting much stronger.
Tube ballot for strikes against job cuts
London Underground station staff in the RMT union will ballot for strikes, and other forms of industrial action, against job cuts.
The background to the ballot is an older dispute against "Fit for the Future", a massive restructure that LU launched in November 2013 that saw nearly 1,000 frontline jobs axed, all ticket offices closed, and huge swathes of the workforce forcibly re-graded and displaced.
Although our dispute against the implementation of that restructure forced some concessions, the company got its way on the essentials, and the consequences have been dire. There have been several serious incidents due to lack of staffing on stations. Fatigue and stress levels are through the roof. People's work/life balance has been utterly wrecked by being forced into new roles and new locations none of us asked for.
The demands of the new dispute are clear: we want staffing levels restored to at least pre-"Fit for the Future" levels, all station control rooms permanently staffed, an end to forced displacements, and the re-opening of ticket offices.
Those are big demands, which will likely require sustained industrial action to win. We'll also need a political campaign, as TfL/LU won't meet our demands unless the government reinstates its subsidy, which has been massively cut and which the Tories plan to remove altogether by 2020. That would make London the only major world capital whose transport system receives no central government funding.
A combative Labour administration in City Hall would be working closely with Tube unions to put together a massive public campaign to demand the reinstatement of that funding. Sadiq Khan won't do that, but if he feels under sufficient pressure he might feel obliged to go cap-in-hand to Westminster and say, "look, if you don't fund TfL we'll be faced with months of disruption". If we can hold firm, it might be enough to frighten the government into concessions.
The ballot timetable will be announced shortly, and there are issues that still need ironing out in terms of strike strategy - exactly what action we take, and when. We also need to look at ways of bringing other Tube workers into the dispute, as the initial ballot will only involve station staff.
The first step is to get a huge turnout and massive yes vote in the ballot. Morale is low on stations, but with an effective campaign from the union, led by rank-and-file reps and activists at workplace level, demoralisation could be turned into anger.
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Support Fujitsu workers
Unite members at IT services giant Fujitsu in Manchester are balloting for strikes over pay, pensions and job security.
Despite having profits of £85.6m last year Fujitsu paid an effective 0% tax rate; does not pay all its staff a living wage; employs many staff through outsourcing on worse terms; made huge cuts to pensions; eroded redundancy terms; and has a 16% gender pay gap in its Manchester workplaces.
Unite rep Lynne Hodge was also made redundant, without consultation.
Members have already voted by 74% in favour of strikes in a consultative ballot.
Unite is building up membership in Fujitsu workplaces across the country to fight potential redundancies in the future.
Durham TAs fight 20% pay cut
Teaching assistants in Durham are being balloted by Unison for strikes over plans to fire them and re-employ them on worse contracts.
As previously reported in Solidarity, Durham County Council has proposed a new contract which would see teaching assistants working more hours but losing up to 20% pay due to a move to term-time online contracts.
Teaching assistants protested at Labour Party conference in Liverpool last week against the Labour-led council implementing these cuts.