ACTIVISTS IN train drivers' union Aslef are battling to undo the damage wrought by a bitter faction fight among their top national officials. Anti-union commentators have seized on reports of a brawl at a barbecue held at the union's headquarters in north London.
That incident led to the suspension last month of the union's president Martin Samways, general secretary Shaun Brady and assistant general secretary Michael Blackburn.
Samways and Brady could now face the sack following a report into the incident by a three-person TUC panel. Blackburn received milder criticism in the report, but is under investigation into a separate matter.
The decision to proceed with disciplinary action is in the hands of the union's executive and any case would be heard by the appeals committee made up of eight lay members elected by conference. "Under the union's rules it is the executive, made up of lay members of the union, that has precedence over national officials," says one Aslef activist.
"That is an important principle to defend. But there's no doubt that the whole series of events has created an enormous mess that threatens to tear the union apart. And the executive's decision to postpone the conference till September was a mistake that risks alienating the members."
Brady, who wants to move the union close to New Labour, was elected last year against left wing incumbent Mick Rix. Within months he threatened to derecognise the union of staff employed by Aslef. He and his supporters also commissioned a report claiming there had been financial irregularities at the top of the union over the previous five years, when Mick Rix was in charge.
The left-dominated executive committee rejected that document and got a barrister to produce another report-due to be published next month-into the finances of the union over the last ten years.
That includes the period of Rix's predecessor, Lew Adams, who now has a job at the bosses' Strategic Rail Authority. Several activists called the executive's strategy the "mutually assured destruction" plan.
It meant rival factions, which had originated out of a left-right political division, ripping each other apart. "It's quite right for the activists and the left to oppose what Brady stands for," says one Aslef member. "But you can't deal with it by manoeuvres or bureaucratic tricks. What many people are saying now is that they are sick of the lot of 'em. I think the only way out is for union activists in branches to assert their authority in the run-up to the conference in September and say it is us, not rival officials, who are the union."