THE MOST coordinated strike action on the railway since privatisation forced train operating companies to cancel up to 90 percent of services across nine firms this Monday and on Friday of last week. Some 3,000 guards in the RMT union held two 24-hour strikes over a long-running safety dispute. Further action is planned for Thursday 17 April. Despite government support for strikebreaking, management on the nine companies admitted the strike's success.
According to their figures, Connex cancelled 90 percent of services, Arriva Trains Merseyside 50 percent, ScotRail 50 percent, Virgin Cross Country 80 percent, Virgin West Coast 40 percent and Central Trains 90 percent. The true figures were probably higher, as those services that did run were delayed, rerouted and reduced.
The strike affected those companies where driver-only operation is widespread and guards' jobs have been slashed. Connex said it cancelled 30 percent of services running around south east London. Lurking behind the whole dispute is what RMT general secretary Bob Crow describes as 'the underlying agenda of these train operating companies to do away with guards, save their wages and turn big profits into bigger profits'.
A guard and RMT union rep on the Virgin West Coast line told Socialist Worker: 'There's no doubt the next step is to try to get rid of us. The companies are saying what we do does not matter. But we are responsible for the safety of the train, the passengers and even the driver. That's clear in any emergency. Two people are needed on the train to ensure the track is clear at the front and back. What happens if the driver is incapacitated? Who would take care of the passengers if there was no guard? This dispute is about protecting our safety role. We are constantly dealing with smaller problems and concerns of passengers. Those have increased as the service has become more chaotic. If we weren't there, either no one would be dealing with it or it would be piled on the driver. The alternative is that it is all left to low paid catering workers, who are not given the proper training to do our job.'
Eight of the 24 train companies have settled with the union. One big operator, GNER, has even produced its own research, which supports the union's safety case.
Other companies, particularly those looking to cut every corner, may hold out. Stagecoach, which runs South West Trains, hired out 70 managers to other companies to try to break the guards' strikes. The guards' campaign has already achieved success. The man responsible for slashing their role in the safety rulebook, Rod Muttrum, has effectively been sacked.
But his replacement at Railway Safety, part of Network Rail, is expected to be Denis Tunnicliffe, who was responsible for slashing 6,000 jobs on the tube and paving the way for privatisation. Every company forced to settle will be a step forward. However, everyone recognises the danger of leaving guards on other companies to fight on alone. The Arriva Trains Northern dispute showed that a company, with industry and government backing, could withstand a year of intermittent one-day strikes by guards and station staff.
Solidarity from other groups of workers is crucial to avoiding that. The Aslef train drivers' union is campaigning for moves towards a national pay structure. This would be a blow against the fragmentation of the industry and a step towards full renationalisation.
Now is the time for coordinated action across all grades and unions on the railway. The guards' achievement in linking their dispute across nine companies, with three more companies balloting for action, shows it is possible to achieve that. Deep public hostility to the train companies and the government's failing transport policy is a sign of the support train drivers and their unions would get if they stood together with the guards now.
Fighting two enemies
THE GUARDS are up against not only the rail privateers, but also the government. The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), acting for the government, announced two days before the action that it would bankroll companies holding out against the guards' safety campaign.
It pledged to give the private firms an extra £10 million to cover the costs of cancelling services. That money will come from funds meant for safety improvements recommended after the Cullen inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove rail crash.
The head of the SRA, Richard Bowker, used to be a top manager for Richard Branson's Virgin Trains. The crisis on the rail network has led to hundreds of services being scrapped. The government continues to resist demands to renationalise the industry. It has turned its guns on the rail unions to inflict a defeat on the trade union movement.
The SRA six months ago called on train companies to 'resist unreasonable claims' by the RMT and Aslef. 'We are seeing something of a vendetta against the RMT,' one striking ScotRail guard told Socialist Worker. A gagging clause in his contract means he fears the sack if he is named in the press. We've got to be prepared to take serious action quickly. We can't let this drag on. We should take our case to other workers. We should be saying that if we are on strike, the trains are unsafe and drivers should be told not to take trains out.'