RMT plans to fight more battles… but the war looks lost

There’s always been a tension between the front and rear of a train. It’s some decades since freight trains lost their guards and the vans in which they rode on the rear of the train. At the front, the driver remained, albeit without a secondman.

Both unions, ASLEF for the drivers and the NUR (now RMT) for the guards, lost roles. But the NUR lost its entire role on freight trains while ASLEF kept its drivers. Old union hands remember these battles and remember the results.

Many of the frustrations between the two resurfaced in early February as it emerged that ASLEF had agreed a deal with Southern to run trains with an on-board supervisor (OBS) rather than a guard. The agreement included working trains when no OBS was available.

It led the RMT to accuse the TUC (which brokered the deal) of betrayal. A press statement from RMT didn’t mention ASLEF but it seems clear at whom it was pushing its accusation.

Talks between GTR Southern and ASLEF at the TUC took a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, two events made me think that ultimately Southern’s view would prevail. RAIL 818’s Comment revealed the agreement ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan had signed in 2011 to drive GTR Thameslink’s new trains (made by predecessor First Capital Connect) without guards. These new trains included the type from which GTR Southern planned to remove guards and they ran on many of the same routes. It showed that ASLEF had no fundamental argument with the concept Southern wanted.

The second event was a news story in the same issue that drivers were already operating the doors on 11 routes beyond those long-standing ‘driver-only’ inner-suburban routes. Operating the doors was previously the guards’ job and RMT argued that the switch put passengers in peril. The revelation meant that over 70% of Southern’s routes were already running without guards.

This meant that Southern had largely neutered strike action by guards. Thus few headlines resulted from RMT’s January 23 guards’ strike. The RMT had lost its key weapon and now stands to lose the battle.

As I write, ASLEF drivers are voting on the deal Mick Whelan agreed with GTR Southern at the TUC. ASLEF is recommending its members accept it but it’s not yet clear whether they have. Initially, the deal’s contents were kept secret but the manner of the TUC’s announcement said much. On the steps of Congress House, TUC General Secretary Francis O’Grady read from a prepared statement. She was flanked by GTR Southern Chief Operating Officer Nick Brown, Abellio HR Director Andy Meadows (who helped facilitate the talks), ASLEF’s Mick Whelan and his president, Tosh McDonald.

Whelan and McDonald had blank faces. Brown was trying hard not to smile. From the body language, it struck me that Southern had won (although one ASLEF man on Twitter cautioned me against playing poker with Whelan). As details of the deal leaked over the next few days, it seems that Southern had all that it wanted. Subject to the drivers’ vote, it looks to have won this dispute.

This leaves the RMT in a difficult position. Its strikes now have little effect. It guards are no longer guards. They are on-board supervisors. They are rostered to work trains but these trains can run without them.

There’s no easy way for a vanquished general to leave a battlefield. Southern would do well to show magnanimity and RMT some humility. The union should reflect on the almost year-long battle. If you are to fight, then advice suggests that you fight those battles you must win and fight them on ground that’s favourable. Perhaps RMT did not know that ASLEF had already signed away the principle on which it planned to stand. It should have known.

If RMT planned to fight on safety grounds, it should have checked whether history supported its case. History is not littered with accidents on which driver-only operation has been the cause. RMT chose instead to rubbish the figures and rubbish those producing them and any other counter-arguments. So safety regulator ORR, the Department for Transport, the Rail Delivery Group, rail safety body RSSB and, latterly, the TUC and ASLEF, have all been wrong.

In choosing to fight, the RMT sowed the seeds of its likely defeat. By stopping Southern running trains, the union will have strengthened the resolve of those seeking ways to run trains that don’t rely on RMT members.

A cannier union might have realised that it was unlikely to win a battle that it had first lost in the 1980s when British Rail introduced driver-only operation to Thameslink. It might have taken the assurances offered by Southern about pay and jobs for those guards transferring to OBS roles. It could have built on this by supporting the concept of a member of staff on a train to help passengers and argued that it should be extended to those routes that really do have just a driver. In this way, it may have netted more members from those taking OBS jobs with Thameslink or some of Southern’s inner-suburban services.

When the prospect of driver-only trains comes to other railways, as it is to Merseyrail and Northern, the RMT would have been able to show that it had a model that protected jobs and pay for existing staff and helped create more jobs.

Yet the rhetoric from Unity House suggests the RMT will instead decide to fight Merseyrail and fight Northern. If the winner of the South West Trains franchise competition opts for driver-only trains, it will doubtless fight it too.

If they have not already, those operators will need to realise that they are in a battle of wills. Unions are democratic. Their executives act on their members’ instructions. With good leaders, an operator can convince its staff that its plans are the best way forward. A TOC can win the vote but it will not be easy because union leaders will be trying to sway their members the other way.

Unions prefer to secure a mandate to strike before negotiations start. This can seem harmless at the time. It doesn’t mean there will be strikes but it does mean that union members will have no say if – when – union leaders call a strike. TOC staff as union members hold the key to a powerful weapon. They can decide at the outset whether they should enter a battle and should weigh whether they need to fight. They should think very carefully before handing control to union leaders.

Meanwhile, Southern must make sure it supports ASLEF’s drivers now responsible for closing doors. Those drivers are worried that they are under pressure to quickly close doors and start their trains. They are worried that they might not noticed someone trapped. Southern must ensure that cab screens show clear images and that at busier stations there are staff to help despatch the train.

Most of all, Southern must work to restore the confidence of its passengers.

This article first appeared in RAIL 820, published on February 15 2017.