GUARDS IN the RMT rail workers' union on ten companies were set to strike for 24 hours on Friday of this week and Monday of next over safety. 'It is the first effectively national strike we have had on the guards' side since privatisation,' says Alex Holden, a guard and RMT safety rep in Manchester. 'The fragmentation of the industry means we have had to have a series of synchronised ballots.' The companies are:
- Arriva Trains Merseyside.
- Central Trains.
Govia South Central.
- Midland Mainline.
- Thames Trains.
- Virgin West Coast.
- Virgin Cross Country.
Guards on two other operators - Wales and Borders, and Wessex Trains - are reballoting after technical difficulties in the first vote.
Eight companies have already settled with the union. 'The strikes are about defending safety on the railways,' says Alex Holden. 'We've seen how safety standards have declined since privatisation. This is about defending the safety role of the guard. Do more people have to die on the railway because of profit-hungry companies?'
A quarter of the 24 train operating companies are technically bankrupt and all are reliant on government subsidies, according to a report in Rail magazine. The dispute is political, as the government's Strategic Rail Authority is insisting companies hold down wages and attack jobs in return for subsidies.
All that adds up to an assault on safety. RMT general secretary Bob Crow says: 'The fact that some operators intend to use hastily and inadequately trained managers to undertake guards' duties on strike days underlines our concern at their increasingly cavalier attitude towards safety.'
This dispute comes after years of privatisation that have run down the railways. The reduction of the guards' safety roles will only mean train services will get even worse. This will not stop the media from criticising any strike action. 'The right wing media will attack guards for going on strike during the war,' says Alex Holden. But this dispute has been going on for a long time and we did not decide to launch this crazy attack on Iraq. Allowing yourself to be pressured into doing nothing means you end up with nothing. People should rally behind the guards. The government is rallying behind the train operating companies.'