Hundreds of train guards began a huge programme of strikes on Monday against unsafe and unfair cost-cutting measures that jeopardise safety and their jobs.
Workers on South Western Railway (SWR) are set to strike for 27 days in December, effectively paralysing large parts of the network.
The only days not included in the walkout are 25 and 26 December, when trains aren’t due to run, and election day—12 December. These breaks won’t allow the timetable to return to normal.
Workers in the RMT union are 25 months into industrial action after bosses attempted to roll out driver only operated (DOO) trains.
Strikers are asking for cast-iron assurances from SWR bosses that any DOO services would still run with a guard on board who is safety-trained.
Dozens of strikers staged a picket outside Waterloo station on Monday, with other depots also targeted.
“People are pissed off—this strike is what our members are telling us they want,” RMT regional organiser Eddie Dempsey told Socialist Worker.
“They’re upset and they’re making it known through the strength of their feeling—picket lines are getting bigger. Ultimately we’ve got to find a settlement, but that’s on the company—this strike will be called off as soon as we get a deal,” he said.
Some passengers showed their support for the strikes on social media. Whatever the inconvenience now, they want a safe and accessible railway.
The dispute currently rests on what safety responsibility a second member of staff on board would have.
Mick Cash RMT general secretary said that the move “reduces the second person on the train to little more than a passenger in the longer term”.
He argues that this “could give the company the option of axing them all together at some point down the line. The stakes could not be higher.”
SWR, which is owned by First Western, has reached agreements in the past but reneged on promises, forcing workers to take further action.
Andy McDonald, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, backed the strike. He said that bosses “should have stuck to the agreement that had been reached”.
“If they would do what the other train operators have done and give that guarantee and put those guards on the trains, this matter would be resolved immediately,” he said.
Cash called on transport bosses to get back to talks “concentrating on reaching a negotiated settlement that is easily within grasp, which they committed to verbally in earlier talks and which would cost SWR nothing.”
The Tories are desperate to roll out DOO services and are backing up train firms with cold, hard cash.
Under the terms of their franchise deals, transport companies are still paid by the Department for Transport even if strikes stop services.
This arrangement means SWR will receive £86 million of public money for previous strikes, and the current phase of action.
The union argue this leaves transport bosses with little incentive to resolve the dispute, as they still get to trouser profits from the privatisation of vital public services.
“They’re shelling out taxpayers’ money to underwrite our strikes and to cover their losses—the Department for Transport is standing behind this process,” said Dempsey.
And he argues that the dispute goes right to the heart of the scandal of rail privatisation.
“DOO is their answer, rather than admitting privatisation is a complete failure. They’re seeking to undercut safety and staffing levels to make it more profitable and cheaper to run so they can say privatisation works.
“But it doesn’t work. We’re spending four times as much now on public subsidies for the railways as we did under Britain Rail—the whole things a disaster and we know it. This is a way of justifying their ideological commitment to privatisation,” he said.
The DOO debacle shows the lows that the Tory government and rail firms will stoop to protect their bottom line and to smash workers’ jobs.
The whole rail network should be renationalised to guarantee a service run for all, not one based on the private greed of the transport bosses.
But until then, workers should keep up the pressure to demand a safe and accessible service for all.