In the history of workers' struggles in the early 20th century, and occasionally since, the term "labour war" has been used to describe an industrial dispute that reaches an almost military pitch. Such disputes saw workers mount armed pickets, to defend their strikes against the police, right-wing paramilitaries, or armed strike-breakers hired by management.
Although boss Charles Horton has not, yet, resorted to employing Pinkertons to break RMT picket lines, the dispute on Southern is escalating in such a way that, particularly against a backdrop of very little industrial struggle and few strikes elsewhere, it is beginning to look like a modern labour war. It has to be fought as such.
Southern workers have shown immense resolve in the face of a vicious campaign of bullying and intimidation from their employer. Southern bosses have pilloried and defamed their own staff in the national press, and are now attempting to bribe them, to the tune of £2,000, to sell their terms and conditions.
De-skilling the role of the guard is the thin end of a wedge. The end goal is de-staffing and job cuts. Already, Southern has said it will impose new job roles by sacking its guard workforce en masse, and only re-hiring those who agree to the new terms and conditions.
The RMT is absolutely right to step up the action, and should be exploring any and all means, including strike pay, to sustain it and escalate it further if necessary. Donations should be solicited from the rest of the labour movement. Strikes should be coordinated with action on other Train Operation Companies, including Virgin Train East Coast and London Underground. Rail unions and the Labour Party should call a national demonstration for rail renationalisation, with Southern and VTEC strikers - as well as passengers' groups - speaking from the platform.
The response to Southern's outrageous publicity stunt, where it took out adverts in national newspapers encouraging passengers to tweet the RMT expressing their disapproval of the strike, shows that passenger anger is mounting... and is directed firmly at the bosses.
When did we last see an employer so brazenly attempting to whip up public hostility to its own staff? But, far from unleashing a deluge of anti-union hostility, the response on social media was overwhelmingly supportive of the RMT and showed that passengers know the blame for the sorry state of the service lies with the bosses, not the workers.
This is a company which recently posted £100 million profit, and received an additional £20 million handout from the government to try to patch things up. That's £20 million of public money, unilaterally handed over to profiteers determined to publicly intimidate and bully their own workers into accepting worse terms and conditions.
Labour have committed in principle to renationalisation, but different figures in the party differ on the detail. Some say they would take operation back into public ownership only when franchises expire. That's not good enough; the Southern debacle shows that the private sector cannot be trusted with public services. The whole lot should be renationalised, immediately, and without compensation. The £20 million the government gave to Southern should be reclaimed, with interest, and reinvested in the railway to hire more staff.
In the meantime, the whole labour movement should take up the cause of the Southern workers. The strike days, which are planned for 11-13 and 18-20 October, 3-5 and 22-23 November, and 6-8 December, should become days of action against "Driver Only Operation", de-skilling, and de-staffing, and for rail renationalisation.