A crucial battle is now underway at South West Trains (SWT) and Arriva Northern. On the one side stand rail workers fighting for decent pay and dignity at work, and against the madness of privatisation.
On the other are multi-millionaire rail bosses such as Stagecoach chief Brian Souter. They have enriched themselves through public subsidies which have tripled since privatisation six years ago. They brought the cost-cutting that led to the Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield disasters.
Now they are out to face down the rail unions that stand in their way. They are spouting lies, with the help of the millionaire owned media, to try to get you to blame rail workers. 'The lies from the company are sickening,' an Arriva Northern guard told Socialist Worker during their 48-hour strike last week. 'They tell people we are on £21,000 a year. The only way you can get anything like that is by working over a 60-hour week. Their 'offer' now is £16,200. That's £500 less than was offered before the strike.'
Another striking Arriva guard on a 50-strong picket at York station said, 'There was a 94 percent vote for strike action among 650 guards. Instead of listening to that, they are just treating us with contempt. For Christmas we got a pathetic food parcel. It actually contained a jar of peanuts. A hell of a lot is at stake in this battle. We haven't stood up for ourselves over the years, and management has got away with murder. If we don't fight and win now we may as well all go down to the head office, lie down in the road and let them walk all over us.'
It was the same message from SWT guards and station staff in the RMT union who struck for 48 hours on Monday and Tuesday of this week. Those workers also did not want to be named, for fear of victimisation. Half a dozen union activists on SWT have been hauled through disciplinaries, including Greg Tucker, who was removed from his job as a driver. 'We've got people who are having to claim benefits because the pay is so low,' one platform worker told Socialist Worker.
'I'm on £201.25 a week. The 'generous' pay offer they have imposed is worth £7.25 a week-and that's for 18 months.' Management at both Arriva and SWT are trying to pressure their workers by, for example, refusing to accept self certificates for a couple of days off sick.
One SWT guard told Socialist Worker how he was refused time off to go to hospital after strikes earlier this month even though he had an appointment card. 'I'm on dialysis and on a waiting list for a kidney transplant,' he said. He had to get the union to force top management to let him get treatment for a life-threatening disease.
He said, 'If we didn't have the union I don't know where I would be.' That is why union activists in the RMT are pressing for national action to beat back Souter and the rest.
Queue grows to ballot
SEVERAL RAIL disputes are coming to a head. They are all over pay or hours. Arriva guards are set to strike on Monday and Tuesday of next week. SWT guards are due to strike for 24 hours the following week. Ballots are taking place on the London Underground, Docklands Light Railway, Silverlink, and Tyne and Wear Metro.
ScotRail drivers are balloting for strikes, and are continuing an overtime ban which has hit 25 percent of services.
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RMT and PCS on strike
SUPPORT THE UNIONS NOW! TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY Speakers: Mark Serwotka, Tony Benn, Bob Crow and Paul Foot 7.30pm, Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, London
Lies and intimidation
THE STRIKES have hit Arriva and SWT hard. Arriva management claimed it ran 10 percent of services during the two-day strike last week. The true figure is probably even less than that. Guards have joined the RMT union to take part in the strike over the last few weeks. Even some of the few non-union guards did not show up for work-at the small Cleethorpes depot, for example.
The SWT strike also hit services. The flow of passengers at SWT's main station, Waterloo in south London, was about the same as during the two 48-hour stoppages at the beginning of January which cancelled 90 percent of services. Even the anti-union London Evening Standard said on Monday, 'The strike caused massive chaos throughout south west London, Surrey, Hampshire and Dorset. 'There was a huge area without any SWT service at all.'
But the train companies, particularly SWT, are determined to tough it out. SWT did sharpen up its use of managers during this week's strikes. It claims it will get more trains running with untrained staff in the next strike. And the Financial Times reported on Saturday: 'Train operators have held secret talks to counter the threat of spreading industrial action, with discussions including possible plans to borrow each other's staff to help run trains on strike days.' The Tory Sunday Telegraph said that SWT is 'threatening to replace all its 2,500 strikers with non-union staff'.
On Sunday Brian Souter told the Sun, 'I will break this strike. We've already trained hundreds of staff to perform other duties.'
These moves are designed to intimidate the unions and their members. But they can be fought off. On Monday Stagecoach bosses back-pedalled on their threats to bring in replacement workers. But there is a clear threat that a major company in Britain could try to spearhead action to weaken a well organised union.
If it does not face resistance it could be tempted to repeat the sort of operation Rupert Murdoch carried out against the print unions in Wapping in 1986. Vernon Hince, acting general secretary of the RMT, told Socialist Worker, 'There is no smoke without fire. 'They have tried to cut SWT strikers' pay packets as punishment for striking, and now they are trying to threaten them further.' Alex Gordon, a member of the RMT's national executive committee, said, 'There is a strong feeling in the union that the only way to respond to this is through national action.
'There are disputes over essentially the same issues in a number of areas. Many activists are calling for the disputes to be unified.' The RMT executive was to meet on Thursday of this week to consider doing just that. The union has to act decisively. Souter cannot be given any time to train up more managers or bring in scabs. He is vulnerable to escalated action on SWT.
National action, through demanding that all the 25 train operating companies sign up to national bargaining, has to come swiftly.
Send messages of support and donations to Arriva strikers, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Charlton Street, London NW1 1JB, and to SWT strikers at Waterloo RMT, 3 Blacks House, London SE11 5TW.
What we think
Blair's shameful stand
A HUGE amount rests on the outcome of the battle on the railways. The Times and the Daily Mail led the pack on Monday calling for support for Stagecoach and the humiliation of the RMT union. New Labour fears the rail strikes could inspire a wider revolt at low pay, privatisation and Tory policies.
Socialist Worker revealed two weeks ago that New Labour supporters inside the Trades Union Congress were trying to smear left union leaders. A TUC official helped to produce a witch-hunting document aimed at stopping left wing candidate Bob Crow becoming general secretary of the RMT in an election that is taking place now.
In the same issue we reported how New Labour minister Ian McCartney told TUC leader John Monks that any concessions to the RMT, PCS or CWU unions would 'unleash a dragon'. All three of those unions are now involved in strike action or ballots for strikes. In each case the employers, with the government's support, are taking an aggressive line. Every trade unionist and anti-capitalist should back the rail workers.
Funds for bosses
TRANSPORT secretary Stephen Byers recently appointed Richard Bowker as chair of the Strategic Rail Authority. He was a top manager at Virgin Trains. Bowker's father is a director of Stagecoach. It has a 49 percent stake in Virgin and owns South West Trains.
The authority has now waived fines that should have applied to rail companies for the services cancelled on strike days. Byers has told colleagues that the fines would be 'a huge and very useful tool in the armoury of the trade unions'.
'I'M 100 percent behind the rail workers, and so are people I work with. How dare the media try to use the fact that health workers are low paid to attack rail workers striking for better pay? I've been a hospital porter for six years. I take home £180 a week. If the rail workers win, it will make it easier for health workers to get a better deal as well. There's no way anyone should let the media drive a wedge between health workers, rail workers, post workers, or anyone else for that matter.'
TERRY ALLEN, porter at the Middlesex Hospital, central London
'I THINK it's excellent that the rail workers are standing up for themselves. It's not just for them. It's for every working person. They have got responsibilities for safety, just like we have for people's health. If they win it will be one in the eye for the fat cats, and will encourage trade unions everywhere. We've donated £500 from our union branch fund, the maximum allowed, to the rail workers. And most of our members are on low pay.'
GLEN BRANAGAN, Middlesex Hospital