THE STAKES are rising in the rail industry. Three strikes last week showed the growing readiness of rail workers to fight the private bosses who run the fragmented industry. That is combined with a deepening hostility to New Labour, which continues to get thousands of pounds from the rail unions.
Bosses on ScotRail, Tyne and Wear Metro, Docklands Light Railway and London Underground have caved in after strikes or the threat of strikes. Managers at Arriva Northern and First North Western are hoping to copy South West Trains, which beat strikes earlier this year through intimidation. Drivers on First North Western, which runs regional services in the north west of England, struck solidly last week on Tuesday and again on Friday.
Their first strike coincided with a one-day stoppage by workers on the Tyne and Wear Metro, Tyneside's equivalent to London's tube. During their second strike conductors on Arriva started a 48-hour strike in their battle over pay.
Local services ground to a halt across the whole of the north of England. 'You could really see the power rail workers have got on that Friday,' John McDonald, secretary of the Manchester South branch of the RMT rail union, told Socialist Worker. Manchester Piccadilly is one of the busiest stations in Britain. But that day it was deserted as drivers struck on First North Western, and other grades struck on Arriva Northern. Everyone I know understood the lesson from that. Simultaneous action can win not only against particular companies, but can beat the lot of them put together.'
These three strikes are part of a series of rail disputes. Conductors in the RMT on Silverlink, which runs services through north London and into neighbouring areas, have also voted for strikes over pay. Drivers in the Aslef union and the RMT on ScotRail have just won an improved pay deal after a series of one-day strikes and bans on rest day working, despite witch-hunting by the mainstream media and New Labour.
Train operators on London's Docklands Light Railway won a 10 percent increase over two years after the threat of strikes. The bosses at Tyne and Wear Metro have been forced to offer an improved pay deal, which the workforce will be balloted on. Tube workers, facing privatisation under New Labour's PPP scheme, have rejected a derisory 2 percent pay offer.
London Underground management have until the end of next week to come up with a serious offer. Bosses at First North Western, part of the First Group transport empire, have the same deadline to improve a 3 percent pay offer, already rejected by drivers. The strikes on First North Western, however, were not about pay. They were against grotesquely unfair disciplinary procedures (see below left).
'Our victory came out of sheer determination,' a ScotRail driver told Socialist Worker. 'Admittedly, we are drivers, and it is almost impossible for management to run a service when we strike. But other grades are showing they can strike effectively too. There is a real feeling that the tide is beginning to turn.'
Rail workers are discussing how to advance particular disputes and make links across the network to win back national negotiating rights, which would be a major step towards rail renationalisation.
'THE BATTLE on Arriva is becoming really bitter,' says Mark Russell, an RMT union rep at the company. 'The strikes are still absolutely solid. Just seven out of 670 went in last week. Managing director Ray Price and top management are determined not to give in. But we are getting reports all the time that lower level managers, who are being used to scab on strike days, are cracking.'
Another RMT rep, who cannot be named after management threats, says: 'The members are really part of the strike-we had 70 people on the picket line at Skipton last week. We've got wider support too. The Fire Brigades Union donated £5,000 to our strike. We've had collections from post workers, hospital workers and others. That is crucial. Some people are facing hardship now. But it is even more important to raise massive support to encourage people to up the action if management up the ante.'
RMT LEADER Bob Crow
Send donations c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Charlton Street, London NW1 1JB.
COLIN SMITH, an official for the Aslef union in the north west of England, says: 'Draconian disciplinary measures on First North Western have led to the drivers' strike. Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate delivered a damning report on the company. None of the directors were disciplined. The union put a proposal that could have improved safety at a cost of just £40,000. Management rejected it and pressed ahead with arbitrary disciplinaries. That provoked three one-day strikes, costing £1.5 million. There are many examples of injustice. We have a member who has 49 years service behind him and is due to retire in November. He made an error one day and has been downgraded, losing £15,000. And they recently printed in First Group magazine that a top boss has retired with £1 million share options and a villa. The ballot result for this dispute was 91 percent for action.'
Phil Jackson, an Aslef rep, told Socialist Worker on the First North Western picket line in Manchester:
'We are proposing a common disciplinary system. For example, someone had what's called a signal reversion last Thursday. It means the signal suddenly flicks from green to red with no steps in between right in front of you. He reported it and was really shaken up. Management docked him a whole day's pay because he was not able to drive after it. We are fighting for basic fairness.'
The view from the tracks
'WE'VE GOT a number of disputes across the industry and one central problem-privatisation and its effects. One lesson from Arriva is that you need well organised reps in touch with members and in touch with reps from other companies. Bigger battles are brewing. There is the post, hospital workers, teachers and others. It's time we were making grassroots connections with each other. But we need more than just industrial militancy. We've got to take up the political front too. We've got Labour MPs like Hugh Bailey in York defending Arriva shareholders' dividends. There's Labour councillors like Mick Lyons in West Yorkshire attacking us. Members are asking why we are funding Labour. You can't avoid talking about alternatives like the Socialist Alliance.'
Arriva RMT rep, north west England
'MY SISTER in law is becoming a teacher. That and the teachers' strike in London focus your mind on their workload and the damage that's been done to education. There's a big picture, and what is happening to us in the rail industry is just part of it. My dad shows just how deep the disillusionment with Labour goes. He used to work on the buses and be a Labour councillor. Now he feels they've turned their back on us. We are starting to see a change now as people have had enough. You can see it in the unions. One part of it is the likes of Bob Crow getting into top positions. There's a good number of us now who know we need to build on that. There's going to be a big turnout of rail workers on the Newcastle May Day rally.'
Arriva RMT rep, north east England
'WE'VE GOT a chance to fight for national pay bargaining. That is a challenge to the whole idea of privatisation, as well as a step forward for every rail worker. Of course, each particular dispute needs to press ahead and get maximum support. But there is a danger that if it's just a series of disputes then people can feel isolated. There is a general feeling. For 18 years after 1979 we were told to wait till Labour got elected. We've had more of the same for the last five years. In fact it's worse. I never thought I'd say that. This automatic link with the Labour Party has to end sooner rather than later. Every challenge is important. A united public sector demonstration against privatisation is a good idea.'
John McDonald, secretary RMT Manchester South branch