Rank and file workers' organisation needed

Picketing, publicity and the public

The urgent need for the industry-wide rank and file organisation of railworkers is clearly evidenced by the current pay and conditions dispute in the First North Western train operating company (TOC). Drivers, the majority of whom are members of the Aslef union, with a smaller number belonging to the RMT, have been engaged in a campaign of "discontinuous" strike action since August this year, in support of a demand for pay parity with the other northern TOCs - Arriva Trains Northern and Arriva Trains Merseyside. Drivers at those companies are paid £28,000 a year. With strikes every Saturday, combined with a ban on Sunday working and, in the latest escalation, a ban on all other rest-day overtime working, severe disruption of train services in the franchise area covering Manchester, Cheshire, Lancashire, North Wales and Cumbria is occurring. However, with the company apparently digging in, during the last months of its current franchise, which ends next year, drivers are expressing increasing frustration at the unions' handling of the dispute. One member I spoke to complained that Aslef was "letting the company run rings round us" in the field of publicity. No leaflets for the hard-suffering travelling public, explaining the dispute, have been produced. Aslef's performance in press relations is regarded as "pathetic". Picketing has not been systematically organised, on the grounds that there is negligible scabbing. This is not quite true actually, as FNW has organised replacement bus services on several key routes. Thus the essential role of picketing - ie, bringing the striking members together for information and organisational purposes - is disavowed by two left-controlled unions, which each have over 100 years experience of organising strikes. Appeal sheets and speaking tours for the wider trade union movement have not been organised and drivers are sitting at home on strike days, receiving a barrage of propaganda letters from the company, with very little forthcoming in terms of counter-information from the unions. The railways are presently the main focus of industrial action in Britain. It goes without saying that the government of Tony Blair is keen to see the rail unions broken and suspicions are high that government interference is taking place in a context whereby the system of fines that are supposed to be imposed for non-running of trains should have brought this company to its knees by now. Once again it is clearly demonstrated that the election of leftwingers to leading union positions - Mick Rix in Aslef and Bob Crow in the RMT - does very little in itself to strengthen working class struggle. Rank and file organisation and control from below is the key missing ingredient here. At the trade union activists' conference on March 16 this year, Socialist Alliance railworkers took a lead in deciding to establish an SA rail fraction. Comrade Greg Tucker of the International Socialist Group was elected convenor. Sadly, it has to be reported that the fraction has not operated since that decision was made. To be kind, perhaps Greg's preoccupation with his own unfair dismissal case before an employment tribunal has been a major obstacle to progress being made. Now that Greg has won a notable victory in that forum, we will hopefully see our rail comrades building the organisation that is so patently necessary. Derek Hunter