July has seen a number of interesting and potentially important developments in the ongoing dispute between rail unions and the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and the government over Driver Only Operation (DOO).
Since RMT strike action on July 8th (Northern, Southern and Merseyrail), 9th (Northern only) and 10th (Northern and Merseyrail), the union has moved closer to a dispute on the issue with South West Trains and has declared a dispute with Greater Anglia. It now seems increasingly likely that we will see co-ordinated action by RMT members across huge portions of the national rail network. In addition, GTR, the TOC responsible for the Southern franchise, attempted to resolve the stalemate between itself and drivers’ union Aslef by offering an attractive pay increase (23.8% over 4 years) to drivers on the condition that they concede the DOO dispute by agreeing to operating all services without a second safety-critical member of staff.
Encouragingly, given Aslef leadership’s recent attempts to sell out its members on Southern, the union balloted its members for strikes over pay, and won the necessary mandate, scheduling three strike dates in August. It is likely that this was part of the government and GTR’s plan, as they wasted no time in using the right wing press to attack the union’s members as being greedy for turning down such a large payrise, disregarding the strings that were being attached to it. Nevertheless, Aslef have seemed undeterred by this. Then there is the partial legal victory by the Association of British Commuters, which forced the Department for Transport to finalise its decision on GTR Southern’s claim of force majeure relating to the delays and cancellations caused by industrial action.
In the end, Southern were fined a paltry £13.4m, millions of which are being handed back as part of “remedial plans”, including extra funding for staff despite its business model of deliberate understaffing being responsible for most of the problems in the first place. These developments might have something to do with the fact that Tory Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has now agreed to meet with both RMT and Aslef to seek a resolution to the Southern disputes, despite insisting since the beginning that it was nothing to do with him and was a matter for the unions and the TOC to resolve between themselves. The meeting with Aslef took place on 20 July, the one with RMT a day later.
True to recent form, Aslef are saying next to nothing about what was discussed. RMT are a little more forthcoming, explaining that they were to lay out proposals for a resolution and would be seeking further meetings with the TOCs and with Grayling to move towards resolution. The August strike dates scheduled by both unions remain “suspended”. The most recent strike action over DOO was by RMT guards at Merseyrail on 23 July, timed to coincide with the Open Golf tournament at Birkdale.
Once again, Merseyrail workers were 100% united in taking part in the action, with every single Aslef driver rostered to work on the day refusing to cross the picket lines. This amazing solidarity — in the face of the Aslef leadership’s refusal to formally enter the dispute either there or on Northern — has been a feature of the DOO dispute at Merseyrail, and puts workers there at a great advantage compared to those at Southern and Northern.
A move by Aslef members at those companies to respect RMT picket lines could be vital in forcing concessions from the employers. Despite Aslef members at Southern twice rejecting sell-out deals brokered by their leaders there has, as yet, been no significant move to take more control of the dispute by using RMT picket lines to take action, despite unheeded calls for Aslef to reinstate strikes. At Northern, though, there are signs that drivers may be taking small steps towards the stance of their counterparts at Merseyrail. The number of Aslef drivers respecting the picket lines showed an increase for the first time on 8 July. It is to be hoped that this trend continues.
Staff cuts put passengers at risk
Campaigning by Tube unions has led to London Underground being issued with an official “improvement notice” by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the independent transport regulatory body.
The ORR has admonished London Underground, saying: “You have failed to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of risks to your employees, arising from lone working at these locations and you have failed to put in a safe system of work to avoid or control those risks.”
The notice comes after the death of a passenger at Canning Town station last year, which an investigation proved could have been prevented if job cuts had not left the station control room unstaffed.
The RMT and TSSA unions struck against job cuts on Tube stations in January 2017, leading to London Underground agreeing to reinstate 325 of the jobs they had planned to cut. Local union reps are currently in the process of consulting their members about how those 325 jobs are allocated.
The rank-and-file bulletin Tubeworker said: “While the 325 jobs will help, they’re not enough. When an RMT strike planned for early February were suspended, senior reps told those of us who wanted to go ahead with the strikes (in part because we felt the 325 figure was too low) that the 325 figure was a baseline that we should aim to increase.
“Let’s put that to the test: in the consultation, reps should build up members’ confidence and encourage them to set their sights high. Let’s not just tinker around the edges of rosters, let’s identify areas where LU’s proposed 325 don’t address serious short-staffing or lone-working issues, and come back to them with proposals for additional jobs. If they don’t look like budging, then we only need to cast our minds back to January to recall that we have the means to force them to move at our disposal: industrial action.”
Fleet maintenance workers on the Piccadilly Line will begin a work-to-rule from 25 July. They are fighting to win permanent jobs for fixed-term workers. The RMT union says that the introduction of fixed-term contracts is a first step towards casualisation, and insists that all new jobs must be permanent. The action could have a severe impact on the running of the Tube, as much fleet maintenance relies on goodwill and overtime from staff.
Reinstate the Picturehouse Four!
Cinema workers at five London Picturehouse cinemas will strike again on 4-5 August, as their battle for living wages and union recognition continues. All five sites will be picketed, following pressure from rank-and-file reps and activists, including members of Workers’ Liberty. Previously, officials of the workers’ union, Bectu, had insisted on having a single picket line at one site on each strike day, and directing workers from other sites to it.
Bectu is pursuing employment tribunals for four reps sacked from the Ritzy cinema, and plans to incorporate the demand for their reinstatement into the official dispute in the coming weeks.
Supporters of the strikes are organising a national day of action on Saturday 29 July, at Picturehouse and cinemas owned by Cineworld, Picturehouse’s parent company. Actions are planned in Brighton, Birmingham, Nottingham, Bradford, and Edinburgh, as well as throughout London.
Activists will encourage customers to join a boycott of Picturehouse and Cineworld cinemas, as well as speaking to workers. Daily community pickets have been taking place at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, where activists say they have succeeded in turning away dozens of customers. Community activists are also leading the wider campaign to defend the sacked reps, establishing a website and support fund.
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Uncertainty at Forest Hill
As term ended there was uncertainty at Forest Hill School in Lewisham, south London. National Union of Teachers (NUT) members at the school have struck for 13 days in a brave battle to stop cuts that have meant the loss 15 teaching posts and 23 support staff. The cuts will dramatically impact students, as Special Educational Needs (SEN), English as an Additional Language (EAL) and arts and creative subjects are disproportionately hit.
Many staff have left the school, worried about what the school is going to be like in September. School management and Lewisham Council have been intransigent in refusing meaningful negotiations or to seek solutions that minimise the cuts.
This approach has highlighted the sort of divisions that exist in the Labour Party across the country now. Of labour movement activists who will fight to defend education and public services, against time-serving careerists who hand on the cuts whilst wringing their hands and blaming the Tories for “forcing them to do it”.
A motion calling on Paul Maslin, the cabinet member responsible for schools, to resign fell at Deptford Labour Party by 27 to 43 votes. It will also go to Lewisham West and Penge Labour Party. In the meantime, the NUT group at Forest Hill is considering how to take the fight in to the new school year. When it comes to jobs and education, we are intransigent too!
Barts workers strike again
Cleaners, porters and catering staff at hospitals in Barts Health NHS Trust in London will strike for two weeks from Tuesday 25 July to Tuesday 8 August. The workers, employed by Serco, have already struck for nine days in two separate strike periods in July in their fight against low pay.
Their struggle was highlighted by shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on the Andrew Marr show when he showed the pay slip of one of the workers which showed her earning just £297 a week. Serco made £82 million in profit last year and pays its chief executive £1 million a year, but has refused the workers′ demand of a 30p per hour wage increase.
Workers held a demonstration on Saturday 15 July, which was supported by the wider labour movement and John McDonnell. Picket lines will be held at Royal London hospital, Whitechapel, 6.30-11 a.m. throughout the strike.