GUARDS ON three more train operating companies have voted to join the campaign of strike action by the RMT union to defend safety. That brought the total number of companies involved in a strike called for Thursday of this week to 12. Delegates to the RMT's train grades conference in Manchester last week applauded news of the three latest ballot results and discussed the importance of the whole dispute.
Two very successful one-day strikes took place before this Thursday's action. Conference delegates got behind calls to escalate the dispute. RMT national executive member Alex Gordon told delegates, 'The strike action has surprised the train operating companies.
'Virgin Cross Country, for example, was almost totally shut down. 'This is effectively a national dispute and is the first national strike we have undertaken since the 1994 signals dispute.' At the heart of the dispute is the refusal of over half the train operating companies to reinstate the safety role of guards.
The rules outlining that role were deleted from national regulations just days before the Ladbroke Grove crash in 1999. The man responsible for deleting them was Roderick Muttram, head of Railtrack's safety arm. The strike action has already forced Muttram out of his job.
But the three big transport conglomerates that run the 12 companies at the centre of the dispute are desperate not to concede over safety. 'Behind all this lies the drive to introduce more driver-only operation and get rid of the guard totally,' a delegate from Connex South East told last week's RMT conference.
'Already 55 percent of trains on Connex are driver-only. The company has now extended the driver-only areas and changed the rosters in a way that threatens 90 guards' jobs. 'This is a dispute we have to win.' RMT assistant general secretary Pat Sikorski said, 'The companies that have refused to settle are clearly refusing to put safety first. Management at South West Trains circulated a letter from Rail Safety (the body responsible for safety) saying safety measures will only be introduced 'without imposing disproportionate costs'. The government's Strategic Rail Authority is backing the companies by indemnifying them during strike action. The rail companies are privatised when they want to privatise the profits, but they get government backing when they want to take on the unions.'
A delegate from Central Trains, where the union has built up its presence, described the atmosphere on the picket lines: 'The solidarity has been marvellous. It took three managers to try to get one train out. That's an indication of the effect we have had. Now they are training up more managers. We have to look at ways of stepping up the dispute.'
A delegate from Hull Trains said, 'Why are we just having one or two days strike action? The managers will get trained up. We need the short, sharp shock tactic. 'The longer it goes on the harder it will be.'
A delegate from Virgin Cross Country added, 'We have gone from 200 to 400 guard members. We had 10 non-members going in during the strike. 'We don't believe one-day strikes will work. But more days off and we will win this battle.'
Steve West from the RMT on First North Western said, 'We have to address how we can spread the dispute. 'We have got to hit these companies hard and look at ways of involving the other companies.'
A number of delegates said one lesson from the brave 14 month long struggle on Arriva Trains Northern was that management could ride out one-day strikes. And Pat Sikorski told the conference, 'The balance of the debate shows we do have to escalate the dispute. There are already a couple of dates in mind. There is 1 May, the traditional day of workers' protest and 10 May, the anniversary of the Potters Bar crash. We also want to up the political side of the dispute by taking our case over safety out to the public and wider trade union movement.' RMT executive members were to meet on Wednesday of this week to discuss how to step up the dispute.
TWENTY EIGHT people, about a third of the RMT grades conference, attended a Stop the War Coalition fringe meeting. Bitterness spilled out not just over the war, but over the utter failure of New Labour to represent the interests of trade unionists and working people.
It gave a taste of the debate expected at the RMT's main conference in June, where delegates will discuss steps to build an alternative to the Labour Party. 'We urgently need to see an alternative to mainstream politics come out of the unprecedented anti-war movement,' said Pat Sikorski. 'The RMT has already taken the step of backing candidates of the Scottish Socialist Party and Plaid Cymru in the elections on 1 May. And we are involved in a serious discussion about how to get real socialist representation in Britain.'
A delegate from Oldham said, 'We face a war at home too. There are 10 BNP candidates standing in the council elections. Why aren't the TUC calling for big demonstrations in places like Oldham? We've got to do something to stop these Nazis and bigots growing.'