Aslef elections: Setback for TU awkward squad

A weak challenge from the union's rightwing has unseated Aslef general secretary Mick Rix. An Aslef member assesses the left's failings

On Thursday July 17 Aslef, the train drivers’ union, announced the result of its election for general secretary. The voting was Mick Rix - 3,299; Shaun Brady - 4,475 out of a total electorate of 16,863 (turnout: 46.1%). This shock vote, removing one of the key members of the ‘awkward squad’ and replacing him with a rightwing buffoon, goes completely against the trend. It is especially shocking considering Aslef’s reputation as one of the most leftwing and militant of unions.

Why has this come to pass? The answer - as is usually the case - is not straightforward. The roots of the right’s comeback can be traced to the defeat of Lew Adams by Mick Rix five years ago. A number of Adams supporters did not accept the democratic decision of the membership and immediately began a campaign to frustrate the new general secretary. Three EC members began to wage a guerrilla campaign on the executive. They would disrupt its working in various ways, including walking out to make it inquorate. Mick Rix and his supporters - notably Martin Samways, the EC president - responded by using bureaucratic methods against them. This led to the three taking Aslef to court in an attempt to stop a recall of the annual assembly of delegates (AAD), a recall they had originally proposed themselves, when they realised that the AAD delegates would back Rix.

The recalled AAD did indeed back Rix and called for the expulsion of the three EC members for taking the union to court. The three were subsequently expelled and the court actions continued to drag on. Aslef won most of the cases, although an industrial tribunal did find partially in favour of the three. Using this as their lifeline, they subsequently launched a campaign for their reinstatement.

When the general secretary election was announced, the right set up a website and started to circulate anti-Rix propaganda. They latched onto any tittle-tattle that came their way, whether it had any truth or not. They campaigned against the policy to eliminate rest-day working, appealing to the greedy and selfish. They criticised Rix for promoting “politics”, by which they meant leftwing politics, and the attention given to international issues, including Columbia and Cuba. They also backed the BNP candidate expelled from Aslef in the BNP’s court action. Their campaign was well financed, unlike the left, which had no organisation to counter this attack. The right seems to have been financed by Lew Adams and at least implicitly supported by Virgin Trains, the Strategic Rail Authority and of course the Blairites.

The right, however, has won only a partial victory. It is the EC, carrying out the agreed policy of the AAD, that runs Aslef. The general secretary works under EC instructions. Shaun Brady is a weak candidate with little charisma and even less ability. It is doubtful that he will be able to dominate the EC, especially if Martin Samways remains president. The right would need to gain a couple of EC positions in order to secure support for many of Brady’s policies.

The left needs to urgently get its act together. Rix’s defeat at the hands of such a weak candidate as Brady is a clear warning that reliance on the ‘machine’ is the road to disaster. The left needs to organise in an open and democratic way, avoiding personalities and fighting on policy. The Socialist Alliance has to shoulder a major portion of the blame for this. Its so-called rail faction has done nothing to organise, with its leading light, Greg Tucker, content to play for his own advantage within the RMT. The failure of the SA to move towards a party has emasculated its impact within the rail unions.

Aslef has seen a major change in its make-up over the last few years. The expansion of the rail industry, coupled with the elimination of rest-day working and implementation of the 35-hour week, has resulted in a large influx of members. Companies such as Virgin have been forced to offer increasingly attractive salaries to drivers, and this has allowed them to target middle class professionals. Virgin has ex-bank managers, doctors and now a vet driving their trains. These people can be won to ideas of working class solidarity, but this will need concerted campaigning to educate them that their interests will not be served by taking the side of the employer.

On the other hand, if Virgin and the like succeed in subduing Aslef, this new layer of membership will only learn the hard way.