TRANSPORT IS becoming a central crisis facing the New Labour government. People are furious at the crumbling service offered by the privatised rail companies-delays, cancellations, overcrowded trains and overpriced journeys. Rail bosses and cornered New Labour minister Stephen Byers want you to blame the growing transport chaos on rail workers.
The press have laid in to workers on South West Trains and ScotRail for taking industrial action to defend themselves from bosses who have lined their pockets from rail privatisation.
Rail workers on South West Trains struck for 48 hours last week, and again on Monday and Tuesday of this week, to win back the kind of pay levels they have lost since rail privatisation. Some 75 percent of RMT union members voted for strike action in a ballot in which 70 percent took part.
They were also striking against management attempts to weaken union organisation through victimisation of key union activists. South West Trains has taken unprecedented disciplinary action against RMT activist and socialist Greg Tucker. The union wants half a dozen other disciplinaries reviewed, including that of guard Mick Skiggs in Portsmouth.
In Scotland drivers on ScotRail were continuing to refuse to work on rest days at the beginning of this week. They are fighting for a pay increase which would bring them up to the levels of drivers on other privatised train operating companies. Both disputes have hit the train operating companies hard.
The official RMT strike on South West Trains, which operates on the busiest commuter route in Britain, led to the cancellation of 90 percent of services and cost the company £1.5 million a day. The drivers' unofficial overtime ban forced Scot-Rail to introduce an emergency timetable at the weekend cancelling a quarter of services.
The success of the rail workers' action has brought a torrent of attacks from the press, and frightened the rail companies and the government. The Daily Mail, the London Evening Standard and other papers that backed the disastrous privatisation of the rail industry have repeated South West Trains management's smears against the strikers.
The RMT union walkout on South West Trains 'was a real throwback to the dark, pre-Thatcher days of industrial militancy,' said the Daily Mail last week. 'What they mean is that we survived Thatcher's massacre of the unions and are not prepared to suffer more of those attacks under Tony Blair,' one platform worker on the picket line at London's Waterloo station told Socialist Worker. 'Management are saying they have made a generous pay offer. But for me and loads of others it means £1 a day after stoppages. Why should we put up with that, especially when the job of every rail worker has become much more stressful because of the mess privatisation has caused?'
'They reorganised the pay for a range of jobs a few years ago, just after privatisation in 1996,' one excess fares collector told Socialist Worker. 'They got rid of various overtime and bonus payments, and said they were 'consolidating' them into our basic pay. The whole scam cost me £300 a month. Part of what management did was to create a new assistant grade on £4,000 less than what we get. Their aim has been to reduce the overall wage bill, make us work harder and pocket greater profit-funded by public subsidies.'
South West Trains is a profitable company. It makes over £1 million a week. Its parent company, Stagecoach, made nearly £200 million last year. It wants to squeeze rail workers and passengers, to rake in more. The RMT was absolutely right to reject the insulting pay offer that South West Trains put on the table this week.
THE RMT has called futher action on South West Trains and also on routes operated by Arriva in the north of England. The vote to strike over pay on Arriva was a staggering seven to one. Just 28 out of over 600 workers voted against action. Forty eight hour strikes are now set for both South West Trains and Arriva on Thursday 24 and Friday 25 January. A further 48-hour strike on Arriva is planned for 5 and 6 February.
Right wing interference in RMT election - click here.
Blair's man on the way
NEW LABOUR'S answer to the transport crisis is to appoint another overpaid executive to come out with yet another report. Tony Blair has appointed former BBC boss John Birt to prepare a 'transport blueprint'.
Birt brought chaos to the BBC through introducing an 'internal market' that set each department competing against the others. This meant that it was cheaper for radio DJs to buy CDs from high street stores than to pay the hire charges from the BBC's own library.
Greg Tucker speaks out
REMEMBER THE Hatfield, Paddington and Southall crashes? Not one senior manager from Railtrack or the train operating companies was held responsible for the safety cutbacks that led to those tragedies. Now South West Trains is trying to wrap up its attack on union organisation with smears about one of its drivers, Greg Tucker.
Managers removed Greg from his post as a driver and demoted him to a platform ticket inspector (with half a driver's pay) last year. They claim he is an 'unsafe driver'. South West Trains tried to remove guards from its trains or downgrade their role, hitting safety.
It was only stopped from doing so last year by union action. Greg was disciplined after he returned to work last summer following the general election campaign when he stood as a candidate for the Socialist Alliance. South West Trains claimed he was guilty of speeding. In fact Greg had taken a few seconds too long to slow down as he passed a speed restriction. For less than a minute his train was travelling at six miles an hour above a 90 mile an hour speed limit.
'Such misdemeanours happen quite often,' Greg told Socialist Worker. 'It does not normally result in disciplinary action. The most you could possibly expect is a warning and an interview with a manager. But they sacked me as a driver.'
The only other driver on South West Trains who has been treated in such a heavy handed way was RMT union activist and health and safety rep Sarah Friday. She was sacked three years ago after allegedly going to the toilet without permission from a manager. She won £16,000 from an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal.
'Management know that if they can get away with sacking our reps then no one will dare put their heads above the parapet,' one striker at Waterloo station told Socialist Worker.
'The job for all rail workers is getting harder. The companies want to pile more on to us. They know the union stands in their way.'
'Drivers are raging'
ALL 750 ScotRail drivers are refusing to work overtime as part of a campaign to bring their pay up to the level of drivers on other lines. ScotRail relies on overtime working to cover up for the shortage of drivers. One driver in the RMT union told Socialist Worker, 'All the drivers are raging. 'Drivers for ScotRail are the second worst paid in Britain. Even if we win the full whack we will still be among the worst paid.'
Drivers for GNER and Virgin operating out of the same Scottish stations will still be on between £2,000 and £5,000 more than ScotRail drivers, even if they win their pay claim. ScotRail is owned by National Express-the biggest operator of rail franchises in Britain, with nine companies.
Profits on its train division rose by 45 percent in the first six months of last year. The driver says, 'It's time the national unions were calling strike action. We need to step up the action to win.'