On the tracks

Greg Tucker is the national train crew grades secretary for the Rail, Maritime and Transport union. He recently won reinstatement to his job as a driver on South West Trains after being victimised for his political activity and demoted by SWT management. Greg is also a member of the Socialist Alliance and the International Socialist Group. Marcus Ström spoke to him about the struggles on the rails, the anti-war movement and the shape of the left

First of all, congratulations on your reinstatement. What implications does this have for broader industrial disputes, particularly on the railways? I've been driving again for about a month. Effectively the legal process came to a conclusion. Faced with a final tribunal hearing the company came up with a position that was acceptable. They clearly didn't want to go back into the tribunal, so we were legally able to conclude the dispute. The legal side of it was just the culmination of the broader campaign that developed. It wasn't just that we were 'proved right in the law'. I would not have been reinstated if it wasn't for the more general campaign by the union - which included support from CGT and SUD rail workers in France. It is unusual to have a full reinstatement of a union activist in this period. Why do you think it happened? It was slightly easier because SWT never sacked me outright. They probably would have preferred to pay me the money and seen shot of me, but they didn't feel strong enough to sack me because of the campaigning work we did around the dismissal of Sarah Friday a while back. If they had sacked me they would have faced a serious industrial problem they couldn't have coped with. The current round of national strikes by RMT guards over safety concerns has been particularly prominent because they have taken place while the United Kingdom was at war with Iraq. What other significance does this dispute have? This has been a long dispute. It has been going on since 1996. As soon as British Rail was privatised, one of the first things the new train operating companies (TOCs) did was go to what was then Railtrack Safety - responsible for the railway rule book - and convince them that in order for them to be profitable there needed to be changes in the rules to give them the freedom to get rid of guards. We have been fighting as a union against those changes ever since. This is not a campaign that has been turned on because of the war. Neither is it a campaign that can be turned off because of the war. There have been previous industrial actions. Train crews have been balloted for action in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001 when we have seen rail companies back down. I understand the TOCs are divided on the issue. What has made this dispute possible is that GNER and seven or eight other TOCs have essentially agreed with the RMT position and accepted our demands in terms of the safety role of guards on trains. This has divided the TOCs, which has been very positive from our point of view. Each company has a different approach depending on the sorts of trains it operates: long-distance or suburban for example. It is easier for some companies to agree terms with the RMT, depending on how they view their business models. However, those companies continuing to stick out against the RMT safety demands are clearly doing it for political-industrial reasons rather than for technical-safety reasons. They want to take the union on and consider this is the way of doing it. Given the near denouement of the FBU dispute and the success of the government in isolating the firefighters, what tactics do the guards need to ensure an acceptable settlement with the TOCs? Our biggest problem is the fact that the TOCs are bankrolled by the government. There is a huge subsidy given to them in terms of losses on strike days. We need to up the stakes in terms of political campaigning. The government makes no pretence of neutrality in this dispute. It does not limit its support for the operating companies to words alone. Blair's government is whacking in millions of pounds for any losses the companies suffer. This is outrageous. It is not as if the RMT is being particularly intransigent. We have settled with almost half the companies. However, some companies want a dispute with us and being bankrolled by the government makes this a lot easier to do. What happens next in this dispute? In practical terms, four more days of industrial action have been set: May 6 and 7, then May 27 and 28. It is a matter of organising to make those strikes effective. That means dealing with the companies' scabbing tactics - bringing in management to act as guards. My employer, South West Trains, is not involved in the dispute, but our managers are going off to work for Virgin Trains on strike days. This is one of the reasons we have decided to increase our actions to 48-hour strikes. For me the key point is the political question of how companies are allowed to get away with these scabbing tactics. It seems that in this period strikes are taking on more of a political character. Media attention has certainly been due in part to the attack against Iraq and the positive role of Bob Crow and the RMT. Railway disputes have always been quite political. It doesn't take long before we are dealing directly with issues of governmental concern. Our disputes have always had a political edge to them. The union has been unequivocal in its opposition to the war. This dispute was not designed to cause problems during the war, but the RMT is not going to hold back because of the government's military adventures. Yet having embarked on industrial action in this period, the 'forces of evil' will focus on us, so it automatically develops a political dimension whatever our intentions. The anti-war movement has thrown up a degree of fluidity throughout the workers' movement as well as broader society. How well has the left responded to the challenge? I have had no huge problems with the anti-war movement itself. There has been a problem in that we haven't had the resources in the Socialist Alliance to properly put our position forward. A great shame. Instead, most political organisations have focused on their own efforts in relation to building the anti-war movement rather than seeing a way of using the overall political situation to make capital for the Socialist Alliance. The RMT is at the centre of debates concerning the future of the trade union political fund and backing a political alternative to New Labour. Pat Sikorski - RMT assistant general secretary and former general secretary of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party - has though recently expressed caution over the Socialist Alliance. There is a difficulty in separating out Pat's personal views and his views as a representative of the RMT. From the RMT's viewpoint, there is no question of just plumping for a new political organisation. There has to be a process. In terms of the RMT, one must look to how we can open up the way in which our political fund is operated, so that in the future we can support candidates from non-Labour Party organisations that support our policies. The driving force in terms of the RMT comes down to what is going on in Scotland. There the Scottish Socialist Party has been more successful. Key RMT activists are standing as SSP candidates. There has not been this same level of exposure in England with the Socialist Alliance. That means the RMT cannot put all its eggs in one basket. But the debate is moving along. RMT members consider that they are getting a pretty rotten deal out of the contract they have at present with the Labour Party. This is not to say the union is ready to break its links with Labour. What it has done is rearrange its links with Labour - and this has been very positive. We now organise our parliamentary activity around a core of Labour MPs who actually support union policies. This has proved much more effective. But it is clearly not enough. It's one thing to support individuals, however at the end of the day you've got to support a political organisation. A process that must develop over time. You were a Socialist Alliance candidate in the 2001 elections which directly led to your victimisation by SWT. Given the general fluidity on the left and in the workers' movement what future role do you think the Socialist Alliance has to play? There is clearly a lot of turmoil. From the RMT's perspective, it can support the SSP but is unable to support the Socialist Alliance because it has failed to cut the same profile in England and Wales. It would be wrong to have that fight for SA support now in the RMT. We have to build the alliance. Make it a more credible organisation. It must take on more of a party form. The political work of the different organisations on the left should go through the framework of the alliance. On the other hand, the SA is capable of playing a serious role in a debate with other forces that are not necessarily willing to join it directly but may well be able to have a discussion with us about how we shape the nature of politics on the left over the next few years. Maybe it won't be the Socialist Alliance in two or three years' time. Maybe it will be a new political formation. But there is no contradiction between having that debate successfully and building the alliance at the same time. I would hope that the Socialist Alliance's May 10 annual conference will seriously debate the future. Even people who were burnt by the negative experience of the SLP are now becoming more amenable to discussions. How do you see us extending that debate about regroupment into the Labour left? Even if the SA is an electoral opponent of the Labour Party, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't be engaging with the Labour Party and attempting to work with it and engage in joint struggles. The SA shouldn't just be an electoral organisation. We should be a campaigning organisation that can work with the best elements inside the Labour Party. I don't see many signs of the Labour left reviving. There were elements that had a strong anti-war position and that is commendable. However, Labour's structures don't allow them to express themselves in any meaningful way. There may have been a huge parliamentary rebellion, but that was more connected with direct external pressure rather from turmoil within the Labour Party. I'm not sure exactly what there is to engage with in a serious way in the sense that you could have 10 or 15 years ago. The key is to ensure that we don't make electoral opposition a barrier to political collaboration.