Rail solidarity needed

Guards employed by 10 train operating companies (TOCs), members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, staged 24-hour strikes on March 28 and March 31. The action was in protest at the companies' refusal to sign up to an agreement to restore to the rail industry operational rule book the guards' responsibility for train safety. The rule book had been arbitrarily altered in 1999, by the now defunct privatised track company, Railtrack, in a move which the union saw as enabling train operators to get rid of guards, transferring the safety role to drivers, the majority of whom are in the Aslef union. The RMT's initial action in response was highly successful. A strike by guards employed by the prestigious east coast main-line operator, Great North Eastern Railway, was swiftly settled, with the company agreeing to the reinstatement of the safety rules. Seven other companies have since followed suit, but now the remaining ones are going on to the offensive. The hand of the Blair government is clearly detectable in the latest developments. The Strategic Rail Authority, a quango set up by Blair as part of his muddled response to the shambles that is the privatised rail industry, has made what, until recent times, would have been regarded as an astonishing intervention. SRA boss Richard Bowker has announced that the authority will underwrite, with taxpayers' money, losses inflicted upon the 10 TOCs as a result of the RMT's latest strikes. Unfortunately the leaderships of the rail unions, no less than the national executive council of the Fire Brigades Union, are seemingly paralysed. The tactics now being adopted by the RMT - discontinuous short strikes, with no effort to win the solidarity of drivers - are merely a repetition on a broader scale of those employed in the recently defeated guards' strike at Arriva Trains Northern. On March 28 and 31, just as in the ATN dispute, large numbers of Aslef drivers continued to work trains, even though managers, supervisors and even clerks were acting as guards. When the latest strikes are precisely about the indispensability of fully trained guards, the ability of the TOCs to get away with using scabs, whose only qualification is attendance at a rushed course, is a setback at the very beginning of the union's campaign. And, in the face of Bowker's bankrolling of the TOCs, it must be patently obvious to even a disinterested observer, that there is an ongoing attack on all the rail unions. The only appropriate response is a campaign that aims for the total stoppage of the whole industry. The general secretaries of the two biggest unions, Bob Crow of the RMT and Mick Rix of Aslef, are trade union lefts with high profiles, who have been forthright in terms of anti-war and anti-New Labour rhetoric. But, when it comes to winning strikes and defending their own memberships, there are serious problems. Crow has apparently not even asked Aslef to refuse to work with scabs. In turn Aslef has issued a circular to its members at the strike-bound companies, telling them that it is up to the individual driver to judge whether he or she should take a train out, depending on whether they consider it safe to do so. It clearly falls to rank and file rail union activists to turn around this dispute. It is very positive that the RMT has embarked upon strike action during the war, and the significance of this - not least because of the lead it offers to the firefighters - should not be downplayed. But the fact that there is a war on, leading to the intensification of all contradictions, including class contradictions, means that it is of vital importance that we have winning strikes. Derek Hunter