SA organisation needed

Last month the government's much heralded 10-year transport plan collapsed. Transport secretary Alistair Darling flayed about trying to convince everybody that this was just a restructuring exercise. Nobody, however, seemed convinced, least of all motorists standing nose to tail in the car parks that we call motorways, or the train passengers waiting on frosty platforms for a train that is not coming. On the railways the target of increasing passenger numbers by 50% has been abandoned. The mismanagement of the railways by Richard Bowker, chair of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), has been nothing short of scandalous. Massive financial resources poured in after Ladbroke Grove and other rail crashes have all been swallowed up propping up the private train operating companies (TOCs) and the contractors responsible for the dilapidated state of the infrastructure. Bowker has managed to turn the TOCs into management contracts, paying them 1.5% above costs to run their franchises. This has robbed the industry of the money the TOCs should have paid back under their original franchise agreements. Bowker has announced that there will be cuts of up to one fifth in train services and added his own version of 'leaves on the line', 'wrong kind of snow' excuses. He stated that there were too many trains on the line! This was commented upon by Aslef general secretary Mick Rix at a joint meeting of Manchester branches before Christmas. The SRA was using taxpayers' money to cover the financial loses of any TOCs in dispute with their workers, he said. Brother Rix also spoke of the interference of the SRA in negotiations with the unions. Despite the continuing denials of Bowker Aslef has obtained letters from the SRA to the TOCs that they must not agree any pay claims above the rate of inflation. This has led to the longest dispute in railway history at Arriva Trains Northern with RMT conductors. It has led also to stalemate on First Northwestern with Aslef and a ballot on the new Wales and Borders franchise. Mick outlined the strategy Aslef intends to take to counter this government-organised attack on pay and conditions. Firstly any cuts in services resulting in job losses will provoke a strike ballot. Secondly all TOCs will be sent an identical set of demands on pay and conditions. The TOCs will be given a short period to hold negotiations, but when these inevitably break down all the TOCs will be balloted simultaneously, resulting in the first national rail strike since privatisation. Missing from all this of course is any attempt to link up with the RMT in a joint campaign. Neither will any mention be made of the role of the Labour Party - in fact it was made quite clear that the union's link with Labour will be vigorously defended. Despite his brief flirtation with Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, brother Rix seems set to resist any move to democratise Aslef's political fund, which would allow union money to be used to back forces other than Labour. The Socialist Alliance has unfortunately so far failed to intervene as the SA. What influence it has is emasculated by sect priorities. The rail caucus, established at the March 2002 SA trade union conference, has never met. Thankfully that is about to be rectified - a meeting has finally been called. Just less than a year after the caucus was set up. Aslef driver Rail caucus National meeting for all Socialist Alliance members and supporters in the RMT, Aslef and TSSA - Sunday February 23, 12 noon, Lucas Arms, Grays Inn Road, London (nearest station: Kings Cross).