Over 650 guards and conductors on Arriva Northern struck for 48 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Their action brought trains across the north of England to a halt and led to big, angry picket lines.
It came as non-driving staff in the RMT union on South West Trains (SWT) prepared for another two strike days next week, also over pay. 'It's becoming increasingly clear we are involved in a crucial battle,' one RMT member on Arriva told Socialist Worker.
'We've shown on Arriva and SWT that rail workers have got the power to stand up for our rights and stop the trains. At the same time management at both companies are digging their heels in. Arriva workers got pay slips that deliberately highlighted how much money people lost in the 48-hour strike last month. The company has devastated morale already by the chaos it has brought in running the franchise. Now it's after crushing the workers' morale totally. We've got to answer that.'
SWT is trying similar tactics, following reports last week that it aims to increase the number of managers used to scab on strikes, and that it might even move to replacing striking workers.
SWT managing director Andrew Haines has called for more anti-union laws. That's a sign of just how aggressive rail bosses are. But it's also a signal that serious strike action can hit them hard. If they already had in place the means to break the rail unions, why moan about the need for more anti-union laws? The 48-hour strikes on SWT and Arriva have been effective. It will take further and harder-hitting action to win. That is also true for other rail workers.
There are a series of disputes over pay which are leading to strike ballots-on Silverlink, Tyne and Wear Metro, London Underground, Docklands Light Railway, ScotRail, and among station and ticket staff on Arriva Northern. Workers in other rail companies are also pushing for action.
It is fear of a generalised revolt over pay and against the chaos of privatisation that has led the New Labour government to stand with hard-nosed bosses at Arriva and SWT. That stance is unpopular.
Public anger with the government increased this week after reports that transport secretary Stephen Byers is planning to ditch installing the ATP safety system which would have prevented the Ladbroke Grove crash. Most people in London also oppose the PPP tube privatisation plan. All this means that rail workers are in a position to inflict a defeat on their bosses, New Labour and privatisation.
More united action will up the pressure
'THERE'S NO way these managers could keep up this strike-breaking during a sustained strike,' one South West Trains (SWT) striker told Socialist Worker. He's absolutely right. During the last 48-hour strike SWT relied on pulling managers away from key areas such as finance to act as guards on the limited services it got running. That meant creating a backlog in areas like sorting out tax returns and collecting money from other companies.
It also meant getting managers to start work at 6am, when they are used to waltzing in much later. SWT bosses can live with the disruption if they face only 48-hour strikes with a couple of weeks in between. Changing the strikes on SWT to Monday and Wednesday next week is an escalation. It will increase bosses' problems.
But it is continuous all-out action that would cause them the greatest difficulty. The same is true for other rail companies. Escalating action on Arriva and SWT is crucial. So is making a serious approach to train drivers and the Aslef drivers' union not to work when guards and other grades in the RMT are on strike. Aslef general secretary Mick Rix said at the weekend:
'I've got a lot of sympathy with the RMT for trying to do something about the low pay of its members. Some companies have not been willing to negotiate with the union. What they're saying is they can get a guard from anywhere so they don't need to talk.'
Those words are welcome, as is Mick Rix's attack on SWT for breaching safety rules on strike days and on the railway inspectorate for 'political bias' in excusing the company. Aslef sent a letter to its members on SWT before the last strike, reminding them that they do not have to take a train out if it is unsafe.
But that leaves individual drivers having to confront managers if they are not prepared to drive a train without a properly trained guard. Mick Rix and Aslef leaders should be calling on all their members not to work on strike days, and promising to back them up with action if management threaten anyone.
Effective picketing of depots by RMT strikers can also give drivers confidence. The strikes on London Underground last year showed how activists in both unions could strengthen each other. RMT members struck unofficially and refused to cross official Aslef picket lines. On the next strike day the situation was reversed. Both strikes virtually shut the tube.
That action went a long way to overcoming divisions between the RMT and Aslef, which in 1982 brought defeat for all rail workers-including drivers. Several Arriva guards have reported messages of sympathy and support from drivers, even without official calls for solidarity.
Aslef members on ScotRail have been sustaining an overtime ban and are voting for strike action. A serious drive for solidarity from drivers can get results. London Underground management were powerless when confronted by such action. They did not dare take the unions or individual activists to court for fear of triggering a militant all-out strike.
There is strong support among rail workers for a return to national pay bargaining. Aslef's Mick Rix has backed RMT demands for that. Demanding that all 25 train operating companies sign up to national pay bargaining could lead to a national dispute. But it would depend on 25 separate ballots, each open to legal challenges. And it would take weeks to get those ballot results.
The RMT executive did not authorise such a move last week. It was to meet again this week. Activists were rightly pushing for it to move towards a national dispute. However, RMT members on Arriva and SWT cannot wait for that.
They need to feel the strength of the whole union now. That means the kind of action and solidarity that can wipe the smile off SWT boss Brian Souter's face.