Hundreds of trains were cancelled and passengers crammed onto limited Southern train services today, Wednesday, as a solid 24-hour strike by train guards made a big impact. Bosses want them to focus on bringing in more money but the guards fear for passenger safety.
The Evening Standard newspaper was forced to admit that London’s Victoria station was “quieter than normal today”. First class was cancelled to create space on the limited trains running.
Strikers were furious at the “lies” pumped out by Southern.
“They’re trying to make out that we’re striking because we’re not being allowed to control the train doors,” striker Ali told Socialist Worker. “But this is not about some power trip – it’s about safety for passengers.”
Southern is forcing guards into a new on-board supervisor role that will focus on issuing penalty fares to passengers. It will leave drivers with sole safety responsibility – known as driver only operation (DOO).
Victor, a Southern RMT union rep, said, “Management say, ‘Don’t worry about DOO because there will still be staff on the trains,’ – but they won’t have any safety duties.
“They’ll be focused on selling full price tickets and penalising passengers. It won’t be long until it’s the staff being penalised for not selling enough.”
Strikers said that making drivers cope with that level of safety responsibility on such a busy network was a recipe for disaster. Southern says there are “very strong business reasons” for introducing the new role.
The firm is part of the new Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) for London and the south east, the largest in Britain in terms of passengers, staff and fleet. It is run by transport giants Go Ahead Group and Keolis, under a management contract with the Department for Transport.
GTR bosses are in line for a large bonus for hitting targets for cutting ticketless travel and it’s this that lies behind the change in duties for guards, the union argues. Guards get a small commission on tickets sold but under the new role this will be paid only on full priced tickets.
“Don’t be in any doubt,” Victor said, “what happens here will have a lasting effect across the country. They don’t want unions involved but we’re fighting for the safety of everyone using trains.”
Bosses at Southern Rail have gone on the offensive. The RMT said guards received a “very aggressive” letter from Southern last week changing the “selection process to a ‘first come, first served’ basis” with a deadline to respond this Friday.
Southern even tried to blame workers for the stress bosses are putting them under saying that “unprecedented levels of sickness” was the reason for “ongoing disruption” to services.
But strikers said the bosses’ failure to negotiate and not recruit enough staff was to blame.
Southern is also victimising workers for striking. It has already docked two days’ pay for each strike day last month and withdrawn workers’ parking permits and travel passes for their whole family. It hopes that ramping up the financial pressure will drive through their changes.
Victor told Socialist Worker, “They tried to intimidate people out of striking. They said, ‘if you don’t give the passes back you won’t get paid.’”
But he said the intimidation backfired. “Once they hit our families it took it to a whole new level.”
Southern intends to “collectively dismiss”, or sack, every guard that does not accept the role in the next week. They will be told to accept the changes or leave and have even had voluntary redundancy payments threatened if they continue to strike.
But the train guards are determined to fight – and they deserve everyone’s support and solidarity.
RMT members working as train guards in Scotland begin a ballot for strikes and action short of strikes this week over the extension of driver only operation on Abellio Scotrail