Putting alliance back on track

RMT train crew and shunting grades executive member Derek Goodliffe, writing in a personal capacity, looks ahead to the upcoming meeting of the Socialist Alliance's rail caucus

When members of the Socialist Alliance rail caucus meet on February 23 it will certainly not be before time. Like most of the SA, the rail caucus has been suffering from inertia. It exists in the ether in the form of an email discussion list, but has little reality beyond that. Therefore this meeting represents an important opportunity, permitting SA railworkers to coordinate their work and maybe even breathe a little life into the alliance itself in the process. Close to the top of the agenda should be the role that railworkers can play in opposing the widely expected US-British imperialist assault on Iraq. All three major rail unions, the RMT, Aslef and the TSSA, are officially opposed to the war. the February 15 demonstration was given some prominence on their respective websites and some effort was made by the union leaderships to build the demonstration. Of course, this is all to be welcomed. However, the Socialist Alliance should not fall into the trap of just cheering on the trade unions. As well as giving this opposition to the war a socialist and internationalist content, it should be urging railworkers to go beyond words and play a leading part in preventing the mobilisation for war. In this we should follow the example of the Aslef drivers in Scotland who refused to ferry arms and equipment intended for the Gulf to ministry of defence bases. Campaigning on issues closer to home will also undoubtedly be up for discussion. 'Rail chaos' may have temporarily been replaced on the front pages of newspapers by the drive to war on Iraq, but for passengers and workers it remains a day-to-day reality. Apart from causing widespread delays and cancellations, an increasingly decaying and decrepit infrastructure - both under and over ground - continues to have terrifying potential to cause death and destruction. This was again graphically demonstrated on January 25, when a tube train travelling from St Paul's to Chancery Lane hit the tunnel wall after a technical failure - injuring over 30 people in the process. As all railworkers are aware, much needed investment is being withheld and hence projects to improve the infrastructure are being quietly mothballed. Every rail militant knows that privatisation of the already under-resourced British Rail has reduced the industry to a shambles - London Underground is set to go the same way. PPP will undermine safety on the tube due to the fragmentation and breakdown of unified management and the impact of sub-contracting. The conflict of interest is between private profit and public safety - all too obvious if you take a look at the privatised rail network, broken up into the various train operating companies for the dual purpose of creaming off revenue for the benefit of shareholders and weakening the strategically important rail unions, thus undermining the conditions of the workforce. But the unions have not been broken and continue to demonstrate this in practice in numerous disputes all over the country. The longest running has seen RMT members take on Arriva Trains Northern in a series of strikes over the widening gap between drivers' and conductors' pay and conditions. RMT and Aslef have taken action on the London Underground because of their concerns over safety connected with the transfer of the tube infrastructure to the private sector. A number of other safety concerns have also provoked walkouts. Lack of investment and the fragmented nature of the railways can only spell more attacks on the workforce and more misery for the travelling public, with the continued risk of further major disasters, the like of which we have seen all too often recently. Clearly the industry is crying out for renationalisation, but in my opinion we in the Socialist Alliance need to go much further - resurrecting British Rail, with its tired, bureaucratic, top-down management and second-rate safety record, is hardly what we have in mind. No, the recentralised rail industry must be directly controlled by its workers and passenger representatives. This is a process that can begin immediately, as a result of railworkers beginning to impose their democratic control over all aspects of their work. A key task of SA militants is to press for a single rail union for the whole industry. Too often leaders have put sectional interests first, with one union going so far as to undermine militant action undertaken by the other, if it is perceived as not serving the narrow needs of the particular bureaucracy. Most importantly, though, railworkers, like the rest of our class, need political representation. There must be an end to the writing of blank cheques to the Labour Party. The excellent initiative of RMT general secretary Bob Crow - putting a raft of union demands to Labour MPs and refusing to sponsor those who decline to support them - must be followed through with moves to democratise the political fund. The rail unions - hopefully one unified rail union - must be able to use the fund to back candidates and organisations other than Labour. Of course, the working class in Britain has no party as yet. The deliberate holding back of the SA's potential by the Socialist Workers Party means that its logical and necessary development in that direction has been stalled. Perhaps SA railworkers can play their part in giving new momentum to the drive towards a Socialist Alliance party capable of representing not only railworkers, but the whole class.