Defend Tucker and Skiggs

South West Trains? attack on Greg Tucker and Mick Skiggs foreshadows - if we let it happen - a wholesale assault on militant trade unionists, as the government presses ahead with its pig-headed efforts to impose public-private partnerships and private finance initiatives: eg, London Underground, hospitals, social services, etc.

For its part South West Trains has clearly decided to make an example of Greg Tucker and Mick Skiggs. Comrade Tucker, a driver for SWT and the RMT?s train crew national secretary, has been downgraded for exceeding a speed limit by 6 mph. Comrade Skiggs, a guard who sits on the divisional council as RMT company-level representative, has been suspended for using his mobile phone (supplied by SWT) at an ?inappropriate moment?.

South West Trains management is furious after having come off worse in two recent disputes. Last May SWT guards, having already held three days of action, were due to walk out again over a raft of issues, which came under the broad heading of ?industrial relations?. The Evening Standard responded by carrying a whole series of scurrilous attacks on railworkers and the left. ?Sooner or later,? said the Standard, ?the RMT will have to be challenged by rail and tube management, even at the price of a damaging strike.? Comrade Tucker was their special b?te noire.

As the Socialist Alliance general election candidate for Streatham in south London comrade Tucker is not merely a trade union militant but worse, far worse, a revolutionary socialist. The main strategy pursued by the Standard was to whip up an anti-red hysteria. David Aaronovitch  - former National Union of Students secretary and Eurocommunist member of the CPGB -  was called upon to use his knowledge of the left to add authenticity.  Aaronovitch dammed comrade Tucker for being a member of the International Socialist Group and with equal vituperation  for publicly backing striking postal workers and college lectures.

Another Evening Standard article had a double-page spread entitled ?The strike deal the left busted?, complaining of the role played by comrade Tucker, RMT assistant general secretary Bob Crow and other leftwingers, who had scuppered  a settlement. As it happened, after the paper had gone to press, fresh negotiations began, with comrade Skiggs to the fore, resulting in an SWT climbdown.

Within a month SWT again faced the threat of action resulting from an RMT national dispute, but again negotiated a local deal to avoid any disruption and damage to profits. Current disciplinary moves are, in comrade Tucker?s words, their ?revenge at having to back down?. They are also intended as a lesson aimed at other militant union reps. Following  the Evening Standard?s red-baiting, SWT no doubt considered comrade Tucker to be fair game and decided secretly to carefully monitor him on his first day back at work after the general election. Sure enough, the snoopers were not disappointed and logged a period of around one minute on the ?black box? on board the train driven by comrade Tucker when it was travelling at 96 mph in an area covered by a 90 mph limit.

Comrade Tucker admits to a ?slight error of judgement? on a straight track with no other trains near and without any danger whatsoever. Nobody - neither crew nor passengers - would even have noticed the increased speed or felt any discomfort. He immediately decelerated on observing that his speed had drifted over the limit. But he had inadvertently broken the rules - in a way that drivers frequently do - the difference being that nobody can remember anyone else being disciplined for such a technical infringement.

As with comrade Skiggs, who is still awaiting his disciplinary hearing, SWT has pointedly chosen spurious safety grounds for attacks on senior union representatives who have been vociferous in denouncing risks arising out of privatisation. In comrade Tucker?s case, he was alleged to have ?a bad attitude? - and not only in relation to safety. An example cited was his refusal to drive a train during the signalworkers? dispute in 1994, and management dug up from their records the fact that a train he was driving in 1993 arrived 16 minutes late. Also held against him were two past disciplinary cases - even though he had been cleared of the accusations levelled against him at the time.

After being suspended for a period of eight weeks comrade Tucker?s appeal was rejected and he has now been downgraded to the position of ?revenue protection assistant? - ie, ticket collector - and his wages effectively cut by half.

Neither the union nor rank and file militants will take kindly to attacks on their leading activists. The RMT national executive has agreed preliminary steps in preparation for a company-wide ballot of all train crew members, and the regional council was due to consider how to mobilise support on August 29. A national mailing has been sent out to RMT branches.

Comrade Tucker told me: ?These attacks should be seen as a continuation of the previous disputes, not just disciplinary action against two individuals.? The company wants to clear the decks before finalising its negotiations over the renewal of its franchise, due to expire in 2002.

More importantly its attacks should be seen as part of the ongoing Blairite strategy to defend and extend privatisation. This in turn is aimed at further weakening union organisation through the break-up of state monopolies and dissipation of working class resistance and counterattack on a nationally coordinated basis.

This can plainly be seen in the rail industry, where the division of British Rail into several train operating companies, combined with the Tory anti-union laws kept in place by Labour, has meant that industrial action - for example, to defend comrades Tucker and Skiggs - can legally be undertaken only by one small part of BR?s former workforce. But union militancy has not yet been broken on the railways, and consequently it remains a key site for the struggle to revive the combativity of the whole class.

SWT?s outrageous attacks should also be seen as a continuation not only of past disputes, but another attempt at witch-hunting of the left as a prelude for a general assault on union power on the rails. Over the next couple of weeks militants must coordinate their response - not only within South West Trains, but throughout the rail network and beyond. Cross-union action must be argued and built for.

Here the role of the Socialist Alliance could be key. The SA has members and good links not only with RMT activists, but Aslef militants too. More than that, militants in other sectors, above all those set for privatisation by the Blairites, should also rally to defend Mick Skiggs and Greg Tucker.

An attack on these two is an attack on all.

Peter Manson