THE LONGEST rail dispute in British history is over. The RMT rail union reluctantly accepted an offer from Arriva Trains Northern for conductors and guards last week. 'The deal will still leave us the lowest paid guards of any rail company in Britain,' says one union rep.
'We did not get the equal treatment with drivers we were asking for. We are going back to work beaten, but unbowed.' RMT members on Arriva sustained their campaign of one-day strikes for an incredible 13 months. Their outstanding spirit and determination is an example to everyone. They withstood over a year of intense bullying from Arriva management. And in recent weeks RMT members on Arriva stood by the firefighters and sent a considerable delegation to the great anti-war march.
'It was absolutely right to decide to fight back in January last year,' says the RMT rep, who, like every other worker on Arriva, has been threatened with disciplinary action if he talks to the press.
'That's why there was a 90 percent vote for strikes. We faced a choice and still face a choice - do we live like slaves or do we try and have some dignity at work? Management have thrown everything at us. They have intimidated union reps - cancelling leave for safety courses at a time when safety on the railway is of such critical concern. Now, in the last three weeks, they have brought in Frank Marsden as the top manager covering train crews. He is from South West Trains (SWT) and was slammed in an employment tribunal for his part in unfairly sacking Greg Tucker, a driver and RMT activist on SWT.'
Other reps and guards are also clear that it was right to stand up to Arriva. One, from Yorkshire, says, 'They really wanted to break us. They've won over this pay battle. People are down. But we've shown that it wasn't easy for the company to win. And we aren't going to roll over now and accept everything. 'What we can do now depends on learning the lessons of the last year. That's important not just on Arriva, but for rail workers across the country.'
A ballot on Arriva's latest offer returned a 295 to 165 vote to reject last week. 'The problem,' says the Yorkshire rep, 'is that a chunk of the vote to reject actually came from scabs who were looking forward to working overtime if the rest of us were on strike. And the biggest depot, Leeds, voted to accept. So we felt we had no choice but to accept.'
The other rep says, 'There is a silver lining in the Leeds vote. The people who stuck it out the longest were overwhelmingly Asian workers, mainly Pakistani. That's had a big effect on people who are not what you might call politically correct. 'Only a tiny number of people scabbed from the outset, just for the sake of it. But by the end people had lost so much money that many more were signing up to the company's offer. The key lesson is we could have won and won quickly.'
This shows the limits of one-day strikes
ARRIVA WORKERS from the beginning were up against not just a multinational company, but one backed by the government through its Strategic Rail Authority. 'The government and the authority refused to fine Arriva for cancelled services,' says a rep. 'That's not just services cancelled on strike days, but the hundreds lost on non-strike days when Arriva banned overtime in an attempt to starve us back to work. There is absolute fury with Labour MPs and the Labour Party that many of us worked hard for to get in over 18 years. With a handful of honourable exceptions, northern Labour MPs refused to back us. The same is true of Labour-run local councils and transport authorities. A lot of people are saying they will not vote Labour again. It's posed the question of a serious alternative to Labour, which will be put sharply at the RMT's conference.'
A guard from Newcastle says, 'The big lesson is that two one-day strikes a month or a series of one-day strikes was not enough to shift the company. It rattled them at first. Then the government got behind them and Arriva was able to ride out our action. We should have gone for a seven-day strike at the beginning and then gone all out. Actually, I personally think we should have just gone all out. We should have told them you will not have any guards on trains until you settle with us. They would not have been able to cope.'
The Yorkshire rep says, 'I didn't think it at the time, but we should have quickly gone to all-out action. You worry because people have never been on strike before. But the last year shows they will stick with the union. Locally and nationally we needed to put out a clear call that we were going all out and needed support from rail workers and other groups. I firmly believe we would have won. And it would have been shorter than the over 30 days of one-day strikes we've called over the last year.'
'This shows the limits of the one-day strike on the railways,' says another rep. 'Another important lesson is that we need to get the whole union behind us and not leave a group to fight alone. There were some executive members who did not lift a finger to support us, and that's a disgrace. So too is the fact that the TUC would not even give us a statement of unconditional support. There are forces inside the RMT who will be sitting back and rubbing their hands with glee over this as they hope it will embarrass the left in the union. We shouldn't let that happen. But the left too has to learn lessons. We campaigned to get Bob Crow in as general secretary. But that's not enough. The left has got to be better coordinated and able to deliver solidarity. I'm not saying everyone will be drawing these kinds of conclusions. There is understandably demoralisation - but there's no sign of a mass exodus from the union. On Arriva and in the union, especially with the ballot for the national guards' dispute over safety, we all need to be discussing what we can learn.'
What we think
Going all out is often the best way
THE BRAVE Arriva struggle holds vital lessons for every worker, not just the 4,000 guards from 15 train companies who began voting this week for strikes. The vast majority of strikes in recent years have been restricted in advance to one or two days followed by a longer period back at work and then, possibly, another short strike.
These tactics have made gains in some areas. They can be effective in, for example, a company that is working flat out and is in fear of missing deadlines for orders. One-day or two-day strikes can also show workers they have the collective strength to walk out together.
That happened dramatically in the one-day strikes in London's schools and by council workers nationally last year. But it is very difficult to shift a determined employer - in either the public or private sectors - with one-day strikes.
There have been successes in the rail industry, notably on London Underground. But the defeat at Arriva comes after one-day strikes failed to beat South West Trains last year.
Before that a drawn-out campaign of one-day strikes by workers on the overhead cables on the railway did not break every company involved. Winning in these circumstances requires all-out, indefinite strike action or at the very least something approaching it.
Indefinite strike action does not mean going on strike forever. It simply means walking out and not letting management know when you are going back. That has an immediate effect on the bosses. They cannot make plans to cover for a limited period. And such a stoppage by a significant group of workers also creates a political crisis. In the rail industry having no trains for an extended period bites into the economy.
In areas like education, schools shut for the indefinite future becomes a far bigger problem for the government than children sent home for one day. It also makes it far easier for workers on strike to actively seek support and solidarity. Firefighters found that solidarity mushroomed when they were on strike, but was harder to generate when strikes were called off.
All this means that indefinite strikes can win more quickly than a drawn-out campaign of one-day strikes. Most indefinite strikes in the 1970s lasted less than a week and won. There is a debate among union activists about how to win a number of different disputes.
Learning from the experience of Arriva and dispelling the myths about indefinite strike action have to be part of that debate. A one-day strike can boost workers and weaken the employers and government. But forcing them to back down takes harder-hitting action. The most effective action is an indefinite strike.