The long running dispute at Southern Rail has taken a further dramatic turn after drivers in the Aslef union voted down a deal recommended by their General Secretary Mick Whelan and the TUC by 54 per cent to 46 per cent.
A successful and defiant strike by RMT drivers and conductors on the same day the ballot result was announced saw many Aslef members refusing to drive trains without their RMT colleagues on board.
Crucially the snubbed deal would have allowed Southern Govia Thameslink Railway to force drivers to operate trains without a conductor “in exceptional circumstances”. While sickness or lateness due to delayed connecting trains were highlighted in the deal, few drivers doubted that what was really being offered was a scab deal that would require Aslef members to drive on when the RMT was on strike.
This is why the more militant RMT union was excluded from the talks between Aslef and the company. Disgracefully the TUC wholeheartedly went along with this attempted sell out. As ever, the TUC acted to isolate workers fighting back and to lubricate the wheels of class collaboration, rather than the engine room for powering the class struggle to higher levels.
While it is a great victory for solidarity and a boost to RMT members, who have now taken 29 days of strike action over 10 months, there is a very real danger that the dispute could be shunted into a siding, while another sell out is cobbled together.
Aslef Assistant General Secretary Simon Weller soon made this clear, “We could put strike dates on if we wish but it is not where we want to be. I see no reason why we can’t achieve a negotiated settlement that’s acceptable to all our members.” Aslef is now embroiled in new secret talks with Govia.
According to the bureaucrats who run this craft union, which has traditionally blocked joint action with other grades, the margin of defeat in the ballot was so slim that only a tweak is necessary. The government and the media seem to agree that this is “responsible” trade unionism.
How strange that the much narrower victory for Brexit (52-48) is taken to be the will of the people and anyone seeking to soften its impact, let alone reverse the decision is said to be in denial or undemocratic, but Weller and Whelan are responsible citizens!
Unfortunately RMT officials, while constrained by their members’ militancy, cannot be trusted to offer a way forward themselves. Their main demand is to be included in the talks. They even called off a vote to extend the strikes to Govia’s other franchise at London Midland, running services between Liverpool and the capital, which was widely expected to return a whopping mandate for action, as a gesture of goodwill to Aslef and the bosses.
Joint union meetings should be organised to agree a rank & file led alternative strategy, escalating the strikes up to and including all out action, and including all unions: Aslef, RMT and TSSA. These meetings should also elect strike committees that can act fast to buck any attempt to divide the workers.
The strikes should also be extended to other networks: London Midland immediately but to other rail companies and the tube too. This is a national attack designed to break the unions and massively reduce the workforce at a time when the number of passengers, the length of the trains and the tightness of the timetable are all increasing. It is a recipe for accidents and deaths.
But strike action on its own can merely delay the changes and expose the hidden hand of the Tory government in driving them through. The real problem that needs resolving is privatisation, which needs not safety but a lower wage bill and broken unions, so that profit can be maximised.
Labour should promise to nationalise Southern GTR and the entire rail network. None of the fat cats, from Virgin’s Richard Branson to South West Train’s Brian Souter, deserve a penny more of taxpayers’ money, having soaked up government grants for two decades.
And the trains must be run under workers’ and passengers’ control. They are the ones who work or travel by rail every day. They know what is safe and what is dangerous. They know how the service could be improved.
If local Labour Party branches and CLPs take the lead and form rail support committees to promote solidarity and a fully funded nationalised alternative, then not only can this dispute be won but we can turn the tables on the Tories and the greedy privatisers.