Workers at Southern struck again on 21 June, in their dispute against "Driver Only Operation" (DOO). One of the strikers spoke to Off The Rails.
Off The Rails is a platform for rank-and-file rail workers. Check out the Off The Rails Facebook page here.
What is your dispute about?
It’s about keeping the role of the guard (conductor) on the train. People think conductors just sell tickets, but we have safety responsibilities. For example, when a train is in a platform, it’s up to us to close the doors and make sure people don’t get trapped. If I close the doors and give the driver the ‘tip’ to go and the signal is red and the train moves, then the responsibility is on the guard. We also assist visually impaired people on and off the train safely. We are safety critical. Every year we must sit an exam; if we don’t pass, they withdraw our licence.
Under Southern’s proposals, what would change?
Southern wants to take away the safety critical element of our job and run trains under ‘Driver Only Operation’ (DOO). DOO would put all the guard’s safety responsibilities onto the driver and they have enough to do already. This is also bad for passengers. Southern has announced that, once it has removed guards, people with a disability who require assistance must give 48 hours’ notice before they can travel.
What is motivating these changes now?
Southern is saying, ‘it’s not us making these decisions, it’s the Department for Transport’, but we don’t believe it. Two years ago, RMT wrote to all Train Operating Companies, seeking a guarantee that they wouldn’t get rid of guards. Southern replied that they had no intention of getting rid of guards. Now Southern is saying it’s changed its mind because it is now part of Govia Thamselink Railway (GTR). But when it suits Southern, they are Southern; and when it suits Southern, they are GTR. Basically, Southern just seems to be putting profit before safety. Even if the motivation is coming from the government, Southern have this contract until 2021and they could wait for another company to bid at the end of the contract.
What would the proposals mean for existing Southern guards?
Southern wants to implement its plans by 20 August. We would have to sign a new contract. We currently work 35 hours a week. Managers brought new draft rosters to show us, which showed us working 38.5 hours. We would be going backwards. We used to work a 40 hour week and the union fought to bring it down to 35. Most importantly, because we wouldn’t be classed as ‘safety critical’ anymore, we would lose our right to the guaranteed legal minimum of 12 hours’ rest between shifts, so we could finish at midnight and find ourselves back at work at 8am the following day. During service disruptions, you would be expected to work 90 minutes extra. Then, when everyone gets placed into the new roles in a few years, they won’t employ the same number of people as they do now. If we’re not safety critical, then we’re not seen as necessary. They can run trains without us. It’s dawning on drivers that they will be driving their trains completely on their own.
How has the industrial action been going?
The RMT industrial action amongst guards has been very solid. Everyone feels so angry that we are not valued. Although Southern sent us letters to warn us that we would lose 48 hours’ money for a 24 hour strike, people still walked out. We’ve had three strikes so far, most recently on 21 June. Support is great in all depots. Even at Selhurst which will be retained as a conductor depot, guards walked out because they realise it won’t be long before it hits them as well.
Go through stations, and they are announcing that trains are cancelled because staff have gone sick. They are trying to turn passengers against us. The real reason for cancellations is that most depots are understaffed and guards have been helping to keep trains running by working rest days. But all good will from the staff has gone. Yesterday, I said I wouldn’t work beyond my time so a few trains were cancelled.
What will it take to win?
I don't know what it will take except our determination and the passion we've got for it. Southern is not showing signs of backing down - they just want the union to cave.
What support have you had from the drivers?
Aslef balloted drivers after asking Southern how far it plans to extend DOO and the company refused to say. For 20 years there has been DOO to Brighton but only for 6 car trains. Recently, Gatwick Express, which comes under the GTR franchise like Southern, started to run 12 car trains with no guard. Drivers refused to take the trains out so GTR got a court injunction that told the drivers they had to drive the 12 car trains.
I was a guard on Gatwick Express when it was under Intercity 17 years ago. I left because they got rid of guards. At the time, Aslef agreed to DOO because it got the drivers more money. Aslef never specified that their agreement to DOO did not include 12 cars. This helped the company to get an injunction against drivers' refusal to drive 12 car trains. So Gatwick Express drivers were also included in Aslef's ballot against the extension of DOO.
The Aslef ballot result was good. But the employers took Aslef to court and got an injunction to prevent drivers from taking the industrial action that they had voted for. Now RMT guards are taking our next strike action on our own when we had hoped to be striking alongside the drivers.
But support from the drivers is strong. At Victoria, drivers have raised money to support the guards to keep going out on strike. We look after each other in the depot.
Will a co-ordinated national strike be necessary to defeat DOO?
Yes, definitely! ScotRail guards are the latest to strike. Guards on Merseyrail are in the same predicament: the company wants to get rid of guards and use them as ticket inspectors. On Northern Rail, the RMT has run a great public campaign, 'Keep the Guard on the Train'. It's dawned on RMT that if RMT loses on Southern it will lose members. RMT could improve its communication with us - we need to know what's going on throughout the country. RMT needs to coordinate strikes on the same days across the country - it would cripple them. Naional action will put pressure on the government.
Do we need more of a public/political campaign? What can the Labour Party do?
The petition in support of keeping guards already has 11,000 signatures. In terms of a political campaign, there is an Early Day Motion in Parliament. We've had no Labour Party support on our strike days, only the Green Party came down to our picket line. Some of my colleagues emailed Sadiq Khan saying 'we will be voting for you as London Mayor if you promise to retain us'. He said 'yes'. TfL is taking over the routes within London that are already DOO - we will have to pressure him to put guards on those routes.