|Volume 46 Number 25, December 17, 2016||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Train drivers and conductors, members of ASLEF and RMT, have been escalating their programme of industrial action in opposition to the intransigence of Southern Rail and the government in seeking to impose driver-only-operated trains. Southern Rail has become notorious above many other privatised train operators as failing to provide an acceptable service to passengers, with a high proportion of cancelled and delayed trains, overcrowding and lack of concern for both passengers and the workers of Southern Rail. About 300,000 passengers usually travel on 2,242 Southern services every weekday.
The concern of the drivers and conductors of ASLEF and the RMT has been for the safety of passengers if Southern were to impose its axing of train conductors, as well as for their own livelihoods and dignity in being treated as disposable items and not as human beings and as workers with their own knowledge, experience and values.
The attempts of Southern in chorus with the government and others to brand the drivers and conductors as holding the public to ransom does not wash. The travelling public is well aware of how Southern claims its share of the value added by its workers and then absolves itself of responsibility to provide a reliable and acceptable service. There have been and continue to be protests pointing the finger at Southern for its profiteering and at the government for its neo-liberal agenda in attacking public transport.
Talks at the conciliation service ACAS have failed to bring any resolution to the dispute. Not only that, but the government is openly promoting the idea of changing the law in order to ban strikes in public services altogether. It is already illegal for prison officers to strike. The fraudulent argument is put forward that it is for the public good, but the reality is that the state is further attempting to impose its authority in the interests of its neo-liberal agenda, privatisation, paying the rich and cutting back investments in programmes which benefit society.
As the unions have pointed out, these private franchises need reminding that cuts to jobs that jeopardise safety lead to accidents such as that at Potters' Bar where many workers who were passengers died. Public transport must be effective and safe. According to the media, "Whatever happens here will be reflected in future franchises as they take delivery of new, driver-only-operated trains." It is clear that they want only the interests of buyers' and sellers' profitability to be considered. In contrast, it is a pro-social demand that the entire railway service be run by an accountable public authority.
The general secretary of ASLEF, Mick Whelan, has said that the strike was a response to "ill conceived" changes "fraught with danger". Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald accused the government of attempting to pin the blame for its own incompetence on trade unions.
Mick Whelan said: "We have a trade dispute with GTR Southern, and only a poor government would seek to spin it any other way. We were willing to go to ACAS last week but GTR Southern refused because they wanted to go to court." The spurious grounds, which the Court of Appeal threw out, for this legal action by Southern's parent company Govia Thameslink Rail (GTR) was that the strike was in contravention of EU law guaranteeing freedom of movement, since Southern is the operating company that runs trains to Gatwick Airport.
In a further development, ASLEF is accusing Transport Secretary Chris Grayling of calling on train companies to take "secondary action". Mick Whelan accused Chris Grayling of hypocrisy after a report suggested that he call on train operating companies to work together on a strategy for tackling industrial action in the rail industry.
Mick Whelan said, "It is illegal for trade unions in the UK to take secondary action so I am staggered by the hypocrisy of the Secretary of State for Transport who is effectively telling train operating companies to take secondary action in support of Southern rail and extend their poor employment practices throughout the rail industry. These comments once again demonstrate that this is a political action by the government that has caused this trade dispute. His call to train operating companies to act collectively against unions will only lead to further unrest and by fanning the flames of strife. I can only conclude that he is either incompetent or panicking or both."
Justice is on the side of the workers and their demands must be met. Workers' Weekly calls on everyone to support the struggle of Southern workers in defending the safety of passengers and in defence of their livelihoods.
Further Southern planned rail strike dates:
00:01 Monday 19 December to 23:59 Tuesday 20 December (RMT)
00:01 Saturday 31 December to 23:59 Monday 2 January (RMT)
00:01 Monday 9 January to 23:59: Saturday 14 January (ASLEF)
Sources: BBC, ASLEF