'UNION railroads Connex.' That was the headline in last Sunday's Observer newspaper. Drivers working for privatised rail company Connex have won a magnificent victory. One 24 hour strike by 1,500 train drivers left fat cat rail bosses reeling. Drivers, who belong to the ASLEF rail union, won their demands for a 35 hour week and 100 percent pension rights. Connex has also been forced to agree to recruit at least 60 new drivers. A driver from Battersea depot in south London told Socialist Worker, 'Everyone stood together and we won. 'All the managers who tried to bully and intimidate us are skulking around the mess room now. They're scared to show their faces.'
Another driver from Slade Green depot in south east London said, 'I've worked on the railways for 18 years. This was the best strike I have ever been involved in. I've only got six years left until I retire. Winning decent pension rights means that my wife and I will now be able to live out our old age with dignity.'
Connex is the biggest privatised rail company in Britain. Last week's strike was the first major strike by train drivers since the railways were privatised. The drivers' victory has sent shock waves across the industry. Rail bosses know that the strike may be a taste of what is to come. Only two weeks ago Mersey Rail train drivers voted nine to one to strike over working conditions, and train drivers working for Virgin Trains are demanding a 20 percent pay rise.
Train captains working on the Docklands Light Railway have just won an inflation - busting 10 percent pay rise over two years. Management caved in after they threatened to hold a series of one day strikes. Tony, a driver working for South West Trains, said, 'The victory on Connex is what every trade unionist on the railways has been waiting for. We're all going to line up behind them. Already many of the lads are talking about striking for a four day week and fighting to improve health and safety. Some drivers are saying that the time is right for the union to launch a campaign to get the railways renationalised. It's going to be an interesting few months.'
The drivers' action won massive support from the public. A survey conducted by Connex found that two out of three passengers supported the drivers' demands. Rail users know train drivers are not responsible for Britain's crumbling rail network, and that privatisation is to blame. Last year's crash at Paddington showed everyone that the rail companies put profit before safety.
Connex, the French - owned operator of trains running in the south east, is infamous in the industry for its tough stance on industrial relations. Workers all over the country face long hours and bullying bosses. The Connex strike shows that even the toughest bosses can be stopped. A train driver told Socialist Worker, 'Our 24 hour strike achieved more than three years of negotiating with New Labour and the bosses. Just imagine what we could achieve if we went all out.'
End long hours culture
CONNEX DRIVERS have won a brilliant victory. But many drivers are unhappy with the strings management are trying to impose on the deal. Connex management want drivers to work 'split shifts' to make up for the loss in hours. Split shifts mean a train driver may have to work a five hour shift, then take a three hour unpaid break, then come back and work another three hours. Drivers rightly see this as an attack on their working conditions. One driver told Socialist Worker, 'The reason we went on strike was to end the culture of long hours. Our strike shows that we have the power to beat Connex. Every driver I speak to says that we shouldn't let management get away with this.'
The strings on the deal are not set in stone. Over the next week drivers will be discussing the offer. Every rank and file driver should argue that split shifts are not part of the deal. Connex may try to claw back some of the gains the strike won. But the bosses know they are the biggest losers.
Before the strike, management boasted that they could beat the unions and run a 'reasonable service' on strike days. For three months Connex management refused to even hold talks with ASLEF. But just one 24 hour strike forced the bosses to crawl back to the negotiating table. The deal will be introduced in stages. Drivers' hours will be cut from 37 to 36 hours in October 2000, and one year later they will be reduced by a further hour. The pension package will come into effect no later than 2003. The rail workers' victory has set an important benchmark for workers across Britain.
Unions in driving seat
WHEN THE Tories privatised the railways they hoped it would weaken the rail unions. But the Observer notes, 'The last thing the Tories intended when they smashed up the railways and sold it off in 100 fragments was to empower unions.' George Muir, director general of the Association of Train Operators, adds, 'Now you have private sector operators with narrow profit margins. It is a serious concern for the industry. 'ASLEF is a very centralised, unified union and is almost certainly stronger now than before privatisation.' The strike cost Connex £1 million. The last thing New Labour wanted to see was a string of strikes on the railways. However, Tony Blair was afraid to intervene for fear of a political backlash.