Merseyrail is one of the Train Operating Companies (TOCs), where workers have been resisting the imposition of Driver Only Operation (DOO), which involves the abolition of the safety¬critical role of the guard. Guards are represented by the RMT union, with drivers overwhelmingly members of Aslef. Among the TOCs, the Merseyrail is uniquely strong because it is the only one where Aslef drivers in large numbers have respected RMT guards’ picket lines. However, the Merseyrail industrial action has stalled for months now. RMT is locked in negotiations with Merseyrail bosses and the regional transport authority, overseen by Labour mayor Steve Rotheram. A driver and union activist spoke to Solidarity about the dispute.
The guards’ reps are still meeting with Acas and the company. They seem to be playing their cards relatively close to their chest, although there’s been some suggestion of progress. The transport authority’s U-turn, which saw them say they were prepared to back retaining a second safety-critical member of staff, has been significant, as it’s meant the RMT now feel like they can get a deal and are therefore focusing on negotiations rather than continuing with industrial action. There isn’t, yet, a significant call or push from the rank¬and¬file to return to action.
The union’s view is that, if the talks break down, it has to be seen that it’s the company walking away from them, not the union, and that view does seem to be supported amongst guards. We’ve always had a strong culture of cross-union solidarity at Merseyrail, and there’s a history of us supporting the guards.
When the guards’ dispute was developing, senior figures in Aslef locally made it clear they wouldn’t be crossing picket lines, and that set the tone. Building the same kind of solidarity elsewhere has been made very difficult by the role of the local Aslef leaderships, which has left a lot to be desired. Frankly, it’s been shameful.
The attitude has been, it’s not our dispute, we’ll fight it when they come for us. But by that time, it will be too late. The risk now is of a “dash for cash” across several TOCs, with bosses looking to essentially bribe drivers to sell their conditions and accept DOO with the promise of big salary bumps. Unless the local Aslef leaderships on other TOCs shift to trying to build the same culture of solidarity and militancy we have on Merseyrail, it will be very hard to resist that.
Northern is one of the TOCs where that’s a risk. Northern’s network essentially covers the old mining areas of northern England, through Yorkshire up to the north east and Lancashire and Cumbria in the west. During the miners’ strike, it would’ve been unthinkable for a unionised train driver to drive a train moving scab coal. But now, unionised drivers are prepared to drive trains crewed by scab managers during another union’s dispute. There are also issues within the RMT.
Aslef drivers at Merseyrail respect RMT guards’ picket lines, but RMT members in other grades sometimes don’t. We need a culture where everyone in the workplace respects everyone else’s picket lines, whether it’s your union or your grade.
The new story that Northern Rail [where guards’ strikes are continuing on Saturdays] have been receiving additional subsidies is no surprise to any railway worker. We saw the same thing with Southern. This money is about helping them beat the strikes, making sure the financial impact is minimised. The drive to impose DOO is not only about making cutbacks on the railway, it’s about smashing a group of organised workers. With job cuts to signalling and station staff, guards are the last real power base for the RMT. If they beat the guards they will come for the drivers, and Aslef, next.
That’s why Aslef’s current strategy of refusing to join the DOO fight, even in the way we have at Merseyrail, is so short¬sighted.