Railway rebellion

Four days of strike action by railworkers against South West Trains (SWT) has moved the crisis of Britain's railways, once again, to the top of the national news agenda. Though the media has focused on SWT, there are in fact three disputes ongoing. Scotrail drivers are working to rule in support of their demand for increased wages. Meanwhile a ballot for strike action of Rail Maritime Transport members on Arriva Northern has resulted in an overwhelming vote in favour of action - 429 votes for with only 29 against. This new action will take the form of a walkout scheduled for January 24 and 25, with a second one planned for February 5 and 6. RMT members in the south-west are incensed by the decision of SWT to impose a pay increase of 7.6% over 18 months. If this happens, the pay gap between non-drivers and drivers would start to become a gulf. Drivers, who are overwhelmingly Aslef members, have received a 17% award, taking their salaries to about £35,000 (some drivers have actually seen their pay double since privatisation). RMT activists have demanded that its members should receive the same percentage increase as the drivers (ie, 17%) and RMT deputy secretary Vernon Hince has accused all 26 train companies of trying to "divorce" drivers from other railworkers. Support for the SWT strike has been solid, as indicated by the level of disruption caused to SWT services. The company was only able to run 200 of its daily 1,700 trains into Waterloo on January 7. Similarly, Scotrail drivers forced the cancellation of one in four trains over the weekend of January 5-6. There are two strands to the SWT dispute. In addition to the pay gap between Aslef drivers and RMT staff they are protesting about the victimisation of militants, most notably leading Socialist Alliance member Greg Tucker. Comrade Tucker, also a member of the International Socialist Group, was demoted from his position of train driver to that of ticket collector following a minor breach of safety regulations, which he has always admitted to: he inadvertently exceeded the speed limit for a couple of minutes, but there was no question of putting anyone in danger. The punishment meted out by SWT was, however, totally disproportionate to the 'offence' - one which, because it is so easy to commit, normally goes unpunished. Indeed, comrade Tucker has the reputation for being a very good and safe driver. But the rail bosses are not interested in that: rather in political scapegoating. Comrade Tucker is not the only RMT militant to have been victimised by SWT. Sarah Friday and, most notably, Mick Skiggs have also been recently on the receiving end of SWT's particular brand of 'justice' (see Weekly Worker August 30 2001). Union militants have been watched hawk-like by the rail bosses for any possible breach of discipline - no matter how Kafkaesque the charge - and then massively punished at the first available opportunity. Outrageously, comrade Skiggs was disciplined for using a mobile phone provided by the company whilst on duty, despite the fact that workers are required keep these on at all times. However, this incident provided a chance for professional left watcher and full-time sneerer David Aaronovitch to cynically comment that "commuters forced to drive, walk, fly or crawl to work because of the 48-hour strikes affecting SWT can reflect that they are casualties in the war of Skiggs's mobile" (The Independent January 4). As should be obvious to all, SWT is pursuing a nakedly anti-union policy, seeking to restrict the RMT's ability to organise by witch-hunting union militants. The internal politics of the RMT, portrayed by some as the main cause of the dispute, are in a state of fluidity following the death of general secretary Jimmy Knapp. Bob Crow, a former member of Arthur Scargill's moribund and increasingly freakish Socialist Labour Party, has emerged as front runner in the race to replace Knapp. Unsurprisingly 'moderates' within the union are doing everything they can to use Crow's political history against him. In this anti-militant spirit, Phil Bialyk launched his campaign for the post in the pages of Tribune (December 14), where he devoted most of the space afforded him to warning of the dangers of "ultra-left posturing". (In a slightly odd incident, comrade Crow was attacked by two men in the early hours of new year's day. He was hit in the face with an iron bar outside his home, causing him to partially lose vision in his right eye. The police are exploring the possibility of a grudge attack.) These disputes are taking place against the backdrop of the general collapse of the rail network's infrastructure. Passengers arrive at stations resigned to delays, cancellations and high fares. Any advances in the quality of service are made at the expense of safety. For example, the weekend of January 5-6 saw the lifting of the majority of the speed restrictions imposed by Great North Eastern Railways and West Anglia and Great Northern Railways following the Hatfield disaster on the east coast main line. However, there is no indication there has been a sudden miracle cure developed for defective rail (or gauge corner cracking), a potentially dangerous hazard which could easily cause derailments. There is a real possibility that we will witness another major disaster in the not too distant future. No wonder SWT employees are incensed at the hypocrisy of the rail bosses in throwing accusations of safety breaches at comrade Tucker. Passengers are also taking action. One group, the Better Rail Advisory Group, has called for a boycott of the railways on March 1. A perfect illustration of how widely privatisation is perceived as a failure. However, while such groups are against the current state of affairs, they are assiduously courted by the rightwing press, which seeks to play off the interests of passengers against those of the workers. Needless to say, in reality, the interests of the majority of passengers - overwhelmingly working class - and of railworkers are in the last analysis identical. Railworkers need to take the lead in putting forward a solution to the current crisis, and the left needs to arm them with a political programme that provides answers for passengers and workers alike. Phone-ins and vox pop polls constantly show that most people reject the privatisation/deregulation of the railways and are positively in favour of some sort of return to 'public ownership' - ie, believe that the railways system, if not the transport system as a whole. But the last thing we need is old-style bureaucratic nationalisation à  la British Rail. Workers and passengers themselves must run the network in order to ensure safety and reliability. The rightwing press have been quick to start a 'red scare', fixing comrade Tucker and the Socialist Alliance in their sights. As is nearly always the case with these anti-left campaigns, almost comical levels of ignorance are quickly revealed. So the Evening Standard informs us that "Mr Tucker" is "an unreconstructed figure of the hard left and a fanatical supporter of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Alliance" (January 4). Oh well. Warming to the anti-red theme, The Daily Telegraph - incorrectly dubbing Socialist Worker the "paper of the Socialist Alliance" - led on January 4 with the luridly entitled article, 'Rail chaos revenge of union man'. "Unreconstructed" Thatcherite editor Charles Moore used his column to exhort the government to "break the RMT's stranglehold" (January 8). He also wondered aloud whether the "lucubrations" of John Birt - the former director general of the BBC, who has been drafted in to 'solve' Britain's transport crisis - will "lead him back to the heady days of Margaret Thatcher's trade union reforms, when the abolition of the right to strike in essential services was seriously canvassed". As for the paper's increasingly eccentric columnist and ex-Moral maze panellist, Janet Daley (like Aaronovitch also an ex-leftist), she doddered on about how the Labour government "has cut off its only plausible chance of escape from the political objective of the rail unions", who are likened to "an international Marxist convention". Which is? Yes, to further improve upon "the privatised performance". According to Daley, privatisation "was, by any standards, a huge success", particularly in the field of safety standards, which pre-Hatfield, were "consistently improving" (January 9). However, the government has yet to show any real appetite for a direct confrontation with the RMT. Naturally, its press releases have been unremittingly hostile, with the increasingly harassed looking Stephen Byers, the transport secretary, sanctimoniously declaring: "In this day and age, disagreements like this should not give rise to strike action." However, Byers also said there was no "quick fix" for the railways, which seems to be committing the government to a policy of non-intervention. In other words, it is up to the rail bosses to deal with malcontents like Tucker and Skiggs, while New Labour will stick to its stubborn and in many ways irrational (given the level of public animosity, that is) commitment to the 'Tory' privatisation of the rail system. This inevitably means that at some stage the Labour government will move to break union power - especially the likes of the RMT and Aslef. As for the Tories, they are tainted by past association. All their virulent denunciations of the government's transport policy in general, and Stephen Byers in particular, cannot change the fact that it was a Conservative government which initiated the sell-off of the railways - that, unfortunately for them, will not be forgotten. The left therefore has an opportunity to present a coherent alternative to the current chaos. People before profit, the Socialist Alliance's general election manifesto, commits the SA to fight for a renationalised rail network "under the control of those who work on and use it" (p10). We should take this policy into union branches and fight for it to be adopted as the only way to safeguard the common interests of railworkers and passengers. Derek Goodliffe Statement from Socialist Alliance national executive To all striking SWT railworkers The Socialist Alliance national executive fully supports the strike action being taken by railworkers on South West Trains in pursuit of a decent pay rise and in defence of victimised trade union activists. We believe the entire rail network should be taken back from the fat cat private profiteers and placed back in public ownership. We believe that only a massive investment programme in a publicly owned and democratically controlled, integrated transport system can begin to undo the years of damage inflicted on public transport users and workers, first by the Tories and now by New Labour. We also support the repeal of all the Tory trade union laws and the establishment of full trade union rights to enable workers to defend themselves from bullying bosses. We intend to continue to give our utmost support to every worker who feels obliged to take industrial action to defend their jobs, pay and conditions and their basic rights. We wish you every success. Fraternally yours Liz Davies (chair) Rob Hoveman (secretary)