Socialist Worker

As Tories call for crackdown, solidarity with the rail strikes

by Raymie Kiernan
Issue No. 2534

Passengers protested last week at Southerns rotten service

Passengers protested last week at Southern's rotten service (Pic: Socialist Worker)

"Don't they know it's Christmas?" seems to be the level of the media's debate over the group of strikes set to take place during the holiday period.

Airline and post office staff along with Southern train guards and drivers are among the "militants" being attacked by right wing cranks that have resurfaced in the last few days.

Tory prime minister Theresa May needs to bring the unions to heel, they say. They demand that transport minister Chris Grayling must act in the way that former US president Ronald Reagan did and sack strikers.

This is not a new winter of discontent. But the Tory right is moaning (loudly) about unions "holding society to ransom", none more so than on Southern rail.

The panic over the strikes shows the potential power of organised workers to cause a crisis for our rulers.

Strikes returned to the south east rail network today, Monday, as train guards began a 48-hour walkout while an overtime ban by drivers continues to cause severe disruption.

Under pressure, bosses struggled to put on anything resembling an acceptable service in and out of the key London terminals.

Southern guards on the picket line

Southern guards on the picket line (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Three days of strikes by the drivers last week shot the woeful service run by Southern owners Govia Thameslink Railway to the top of the political and news agenda.

More strikes by guards, for three days from 31 December, and drivers, for six days from 9 January, were set to continue in the New Year.

Passengers are sick of politicians and the press lying about their daily experience—blaming all disruption on workers' industrial action. They know that Southern has been a mess for at least 18 months, well before any strikes started.


Some 150 passengers protested in London's busy Victoria rail station last Thursday,then marched on the Department for Transport chanting “Grayling—out”.

One more fortunate passenger told Socialist Worker how he had been forced to work from home for months due to the unreliable service—but most have not had that luxury.

He said, “What's happening is shameful—it's no good just blaming the unions. I'm really angry. Grayling should strip Govia of the Southern franchise now.”

The Association of British Commuters protest group has also embarked on judicial review proceedings to expose the grubby deal between Grayling's department and Govia.

The drivers' powerful action has in a matter of days done what these passengers have fought for the best part of a year to do—bring mainstream attention to the Southern fiasco.

Right wing critics of the strikes label rail unions as “Luddite” for their refusal to accept bosses' “modernising” agenda. Extending driver only operation (DOO) is central to this. But this system is 30 years old and was first introduced as passenger numbers were declining.

Many right wingers are worried the bad press is building a strong case against privatisation

Bosses claim that drivers using tiny CCTV screens—not as all-seeing as DOO proponents argue—can replace safety-trained guards and still maintain the same focus on the job of driving the train. They imposed DOO on more services this week without even a pretence at negotiation.

But many right wingers are worried the bad press is building a strong case against privatisation and have leapt to the defence of private rail operators.

Tony Blair's former speech writer and Times newspaper columnist Philip Collins denounced the guards' RMT union as “Marxists” and argued that “to say that privatisation has been a disaster is nonsense”.

He was careful not to mention the hundreds of billions of pounds in state subsidies to private rail firms since privatisation in his defence of the fat cats.

But Collins' argument that “passenger numbers have doubled and more journeys are taken by rail now than at any time since the 1920s” only highlights exactly why passengers should support the strikers.

When numbers are going up where is the sense in slashing the workers responsible for safety?

Tory Lord Heseltine waded in, saying that "regardless of personal inconvenience or cost" the Tories' push for DOO has to prevail. He insisted, "The law of the land must be supreme.”

The Sunday Times newspaper moaned about “unfinished business” from Thatcher's "reforming period" and that "it is time for a firmer hand time to hit the unions in their pockets".

The Tories are taking an increasingly hard line and now threaten more curbs on rail workers' right to strike.

Even as they prepare to bring in a raft of new restrictions on trade unions in the Trade Union Act, they are already planning more.

Every trade unionist and supporter of safer public rail services needs to get behind the rail workers' strikes—they are fighting for all of us, in more ways than one, while the Tories look out for the bosses.

It's time to step up the action everywhere.


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