Strikes are a stalemate where both sides must make the right moves

As the hours ticked down to 1100 on November 11 1918, soldiers continued being killed on the Western Front. Germany had signed an armistice early that morning but its implementation was delayed to allow its message to be spread.

Those few hours proved fatal for many, not least for Americans whose commanders were keen to push forward even with the prospect of hostilities ceasing that same morning. The US commander, John Pershing, is said to have been keen to push on to Berlin in order to comprehensively defeat the Kaiser and his people. Pershing feared that anything less than a complete defeat would not convince those people they had lost.

Two decades later and Europe was again at war, not least because Germany’s leaders believed they had been betrayed in 1918 rather than feeling they had lost.

France and Britain took a different view to the recently arrived Americans. They wanted the killing to stop and the armistice achieved that after four years of war. This honourable and decent decision had terrible long-term consequences but was widely welcomed in the high streets and station roads of Britain and the rues and boulevards of France.

The moral of this story? It is sometimes better to clearly defeat your opponent. It’s now a year since Southern conductors voted for strike action about the train operator’s plans to convert their role into that of on-board supervisors (OBS) with door controls transferred to train drivers. That vote, organised by rail union RMT, resulted in an overwhelming mandate to reject Southern’s proposals and to take strike action.

Between then and now, those conductors have walked out for the equivalent of a month. Meanwhile, Southern made the changes it wanted. Drivers now control doors and trains run under driver only operation (DOO) rules. The conductors are now OBS, a grade RMT doesn’t recognise because to do so would be to accept the changes Southern has made.

The most recent strike took place on April 8. Southern said it ran 95% of its timetable and claimed that 55% of conductors and OBS reported for work. The RMT described the strike as rock solid.

It was a similar story on March 13 and February 22 with around 90% of services running and over half of on-board staff reporting for work.

The RMT executive appears in no mind to sue for peace and, with almost all it services running normally, there’s no pressure on Southern to extend any helping hand. Yet this dispute must end. But unless it ends in comprehensive defeat for the RMT, it will fester under the surface to erupt again.

It’s for the former conductors to put pressure on their union reps to end this strike. For those services working under DOO, they are now OBS. Before long, they will be looking for an annual pay rise but they can’t rely on their union to represent them because their union doesn’t recognise their grade.

The situation at Southern is further complicated by train drivers twice rejecting a deal agreed by their union, ASLEF. The two rejections come despite them driving DOO trains every day. It’s clear there’s a gap between ASLEF’s executive and their members although the most recent vote reveals a large number did not bother with their ballot papers.

Trains without guards are not new. Even before Southern’s dispute with RMT and ASLEF, hundreds of such services run every day, mostly around London. The capital’s Underground system runs all its trains under DOO. A guard is not essential. But a second member of staff on board is useful and generally welcome by passengers. That’s why Southern rosters OBS to its services but doesn’t cancel them if the OBS is not available.

The more hardline RMT becomes the more government will look to bypass it and let franchises on the basis that guards are removed either entirely or they become that second member of staff there to sell tickets and help passengers on the basis that the train will run whether or not they are present. RMT’s inflexibility will be demise of today’s guards’ jobs.

Merseyrail’s guards walked out on April 8, the day of the Grand National horse race at Aintree. Northern’s guards walked out on the same day. Their reasons were the same as on Southern. Merseyrail is introducing new trains that will be entirely DOO. On a network with similarities to London Underground, the local transport authority wants to remove guards completely.

At Northern, the DfT specified in the franchise agreement that a proportion of trains are switched to DOO with a second member of staff on board, as Southern does.

Northern plans to use new trains that should be in service towards the end of 2018. Northern is keeping details of where it plans to use DOO to itself. It says it wants to discuss its plans with its staff first which is laudable. But RMT will not talk with Northern unless the company guarantees the role of the guard. Northern cannot do this and so no substantive talks have taken place and the company’s staff remain in the dark.

If its employees’ union representatives will not represent their members then Northern should talk directly with its staff. Whether by letter, roadshows or management briefings, the company should explain directly what it wants to achieve and use the feedback it receives to refine those plans.

RMT plays effectively to peoples’ fears. It paints a picture of a staffless railway with no-one to help passengers. It floats the worry of redundancies. Yet that’s not what’s happened at Southern, which has recruited extra staff into OBS roles as well as offering former conductors these new roles. Nor has it cut pay.

The longer Northern remains silent the more worried staff and passengers become. It must move decisively to quell any growing fears. It must explain what its ideas mean for people. It must explain how it plans to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs, for example, because they usually need someone to lay a ramp between platform and train for them.

It must explain how it plans to meet the Office of Rail and Road’s recent principles for driver-controlled operation trains (that’s DOO plus a second member of staff on board). These guidelines can be summarised as ‘do it properly’ but go into more detail on what properly looks like. Trains must be compatible with platforms and vice versa, the train operator must assess how it plans to operate DCO, staff must be trained and competent and DCO’s implementation should be planned. Finally, ORR says the system (trains, platforms, staff) must be managed over its whole life with improvements adopted.

There’s little to argue with here. Indeed, ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan responded: “The key paragraph in the ORR’s principles published – which are really just a re-release of guidance the ORR has published before – is that ‘suitable equipment, proper procedures and competent staff must be in place for the safe implementation of driver control operation.’” Whelan said this was not the case today and called for train operators to work with his union to ensure they were. In contrast, RMT said the ORR’s work was politically motivated rehash of previous statements that was a “a mixture of undeliverables and lash-ups” aimed at removing guards.

ASLEF appears more willing to work with rail companies to find a way forward. As well it might with Thameslink about to introduce automatic trains to the national network for the first time. In time, more drivers might find their duties assumed by a computer. Whether or not a driver remains in the cab will depend on ASLEF’s attitude. Take a hard line and the union might find that, as RMT has, the government considers the railway would be better without its members. Take a more conciliatory line and look to remain useful as the railway changes and it’s more likely that jobs will remain.

This article first appeared in RAIL 825 on April 26 2017.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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