Striking for safety on the railways

richie96by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser

The first 24-hour strike by Rail Maritime and Transport union members who work as guards/conductors on Scotrail was a resounding success. These guards/conductors are standing up for public safety – as well as jobs and the threatened erosion of the ‘rate for the job’ – against First Scotrail’s attempts to introduce Driver Only trains on the new Edinburgh-Glasgow via Bathgate/Airdrie line.

As we have described in detail previously, this is safety-wrecking by penny-pinching profiteers, who could afford to hand out £18million in dividends to their shareholders last year, but refuse to spend £300,000 to hire 32 guards to make these trains safe and secure for the travelling public. All this despite public subsidies paying for 75% of their costs!

The strike was absolutely solid, with literally single figures scabbing across the whole of Scotland.

Edinburgh-Perth trains were cancelled. Others were delayed or reduced in frequency. Such was the impact of these vital workers on train services, that First Scotrail resorted to drafting in managers from Trans-Pennine and Great Western railways, amongst others, to scab on the strikers and run trains that were a threat to passengers’ lives potentially – as a cynical propaganda exercise.

The scab managers from Scotland were rushed through one-week’s “training”. Some of the results would be farcical if they weren’t also so serious. A train sat in Edinburgh 10 or 15 minutes late because the scab ‘conductor’ signalled the driver to stop, not go … which sounds like a pretty basic distinction to be learnt!

More seriously, a scab belled the driver to set off from Glasgow Central through a red signal – a blunder that could be potentially disastrous and would lead to any properly trained conductor being dragged over the coals.

And perhaps the most hair-raising incident was in Edinburgh, where the scab manager-pretending-to-be-a-conductor opened the doors for passengers on the wrong side of the train – out onto the tracks!

One of the problems the pickets repeatedly spoke to us about was the total refusal of the media to broadcast incidents like this, or indeed to even give a hint of the strikers’ case – because not only is the media owned by big business, but First Scotrail and other train operators warned the media they would withdraw advertising revenue if they printed the union side of the conflict. A harsh reminder of the role of the media in a society run for big business’s profits.

The picket lines were huge, throughout the day. As one union steward in Glasgow told me, “I am absolutely gob-smacked by the scale of response from members; the turnout on the picket lines is phenomenal.”

And the response of the public to strikers leafleting them was overwhelmingly supportive, despite them never hearing the workers’ case through the media. Two pensioner women from Glasgow travelled through to Edinburgh, discussed with a picket at Waverley, and then declared they would not take the train back home because it wasn’t safe – “and the bus is free to us anyway!”

Pickets in Glasgow told me umpteen stories of the critical role guards play in protecting the public, not just in the event of accidents, breakdowns or disasters, but day-to-day in the face of anti-social behaviour from small minorities of travellers. They were crystal clear this is about more than fighting for guards on the one new line; with electrification of the main Glasgow-Edinburgh service due in 2015, another excuse to impose Driver Only trains would arise, as with the Borders and indeed nationwide – which is why this battle is critical. And when I suggested First Scotrail and other Train Operating Companies might also be testing the water in anticipation of an assault on the RMT in the expectation of a Tory government, one RMT officer quipped, “Aye, or in the expectation of a Labour government being elected!”

As the big banners mounted alongside the pickets declared, “This strike is all about public safety”. The crunch question when it comes to winning this fight is the role of the drivers. ASLEF, who have a majority of the drivers, could help win this battle swiftly with a simple call for members not to drive unsafe trains, crewed by untrained scab managers. That is what most of the ASLEF drivers themselves want, as they expressed at their branch meeting recently in Glasgow Queen St. But their national leadership have disgracefully dismissed this and seem to accept Driver Only Operations. Frustrated by this lack of leadership, several Glasgow drivers in ASLEF took out dual membership of the RMT, and came out with the guards on strike!

Two more 24-hour strikes loom, and two separate ballots have begun amongst Network Rail maintenance staff and signallers, centred on catastrophic job losses and attacks on safety standards. A ‘yes’ vote from these sections of rail-workers could link up with the guards and effectively lead to a national rail strike, on the eve of the general election. That in itself would put all the parties that support big business, profiteering and privatisation on the spot. It is one of the reasons the SSP, the only party to have fought alongside RMT members consistently since our formation in 1998, got such a warm response on the picket lines. And why some pickets asked for information on how to join the party that fights for public ownership of the railways, with workers’ democratic control.