Socialist Worker

Exclusive: union faces £1 million bill for fighting Southern Rail firm

by Raymie Kiernan
Issue No. 2520

Southern Rail strikers are battling for safety and workers rights

Southern Rail strikers are battling for safety and workers' rights (Pic: Socialist Worker)


The Aslef train drivers’ union is facing a bill for almost £1 million for daring to fight the firm behind the Southern rail fiasco.

Not content with trying to get rid of train guards, slashing jobs on stations and undermining safety the Tories’ favourite rail firm has outrageously launched a process that will take the money from Aslef.

It is a sign of how the legal system works against workers and their unions. It is another reason to fight for the repeal of the anti-union laws.

One Southern train driver told Socialist Worker that Govia Thameslink Railway “was demanding £973,000”. A source close to the top of the union confirmed the amount “was close to seven figures”.

None of the bill is a fine. It's all legal costs.

This is the result of a High Court ruling in June. Govia used the anti-union laws to prevent drivers from striking over the extension of driver only operated (DOO) trains.

Aslef members on Southern and Gatwick Express, subsidiaries of Govia, voted 96 percent to strike on an 84 percent turnout. But Govia bosses ran to the judges to derail action and got an injunction slapped on Aslef.

This followed an April court ruling in favour of Govia to stop a ballot of drivers over the introduction of longer 12-car DOO trains.

Govia’s lawyers, Eversheds, successfully argued that a text message from the union to its members informing them that 12-car trains had not been negotiated was an inducement to industrial action.

Democratic

In June the court overturned the democratic ballot of more than four fifths of members after agreeing that the union could not ballot over an issue it had previously induced unlawful industrial action over.

And just at the end of August the union suspended another ballot over a “breakdown in industrial relations” after yet another legal threat.

In a sinister turn, at one point the courts even ordered that the mobile devices of Aslef shop stewards, organisers, senior national officials and executive members be handed over to lawyers.

These were searched for keywords in what the source described as “a fishing expedition” to find any evidence that could back the bosses’ case to have industrial action declared illegal.

The Department of Transport (DfT) is also doing its bit to help Govia achieve its contractual obligation to “modernise working practices” with special favours and now a £20 million bailout.

The DfT’s Tory masters want DOO extended across the network—both to boost profits for rail operators by slashing jobs and conditions but as part of an overall strategy to weaken the unions.

Govia is being used as a hired gun to help achieve that goal on Britain’s largest rail franchise and it has a multi-pronged strategy to battle on several fronts.

In a sinister turn, at one point the courts even ordered seizure of union activists' mobile phones.

It is desperate to isolate the Southern train guards who have struck several times this year against DOO. A coordinated strike of guards, drivers and station staff this month has, for now, been averted through a combination of legal manoeuvres and compromise.

The £1 million extracted from Aslef should lead to more determined resistance. It must not be used in the trade union movement as an excuse for retreat.

The courts are no friend to workers and anti-union laws are designed to make union officials fear the financial penalties of falling foul of them and to stick to “legal” action.

But on numerous occasions workers have defied the anti-union laws and not been fined because the bosses were too scared of continuing strikes.

Trade union leaders at the TUC next week should declare their solidarity with Aslef. If unions fought together Aslef would not have to pay the bill. 

Rank and file union members need to push their union leaders to fight and to develop organisation between them that is capable of defying the bosses’ legal threats and court injunctions.

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