South Western Railway (SWR) workers began a month of strikes on 1 December. West Midlands Trains workers are also continuing strikes every Saturday until the end of the year.
The workers are fighting to defend the role of the guard, resisting any erosion of the guard’s role towards “Driver Only Operation” (DOO), where trains could run without a second safety-critical member of staff on board, or where only the driver has ultimate responsibility for and oversight of dispatch from platforms and the opening and closing of train doors.
As SWR prepared for the strikes, the Executive of the rail union RMT’s NEC rightly voted to reject a proposal emerging from ongoing Acas negotiations, which would have seen guards have even less control of opening and closing train doors during dispatch than they do currently, under the terms of a settlement reached following previous rounds of strikes.
While it is encouraging that the union’s Executive rejected this offer, it is worrying that it was ever brought before them in the first place. Proposals which would actively worsen workers’ conditions, and are contrary to union policy, should be rejected outright at the negotiation stage, without having to be brought back before any union committee for vetting.
Given the unprecedented length of the SWR strikes, significant fundraising, within the union and across the labour movement, is necessary to ensure any worker in financial hardship is not forced to choose between their principles and paying the rent.
Effective picketing, that seeks to deter scabs from coming into work and seeks to put real pressure on drivers not to cross guards’ picket lines, is also required.
The SWR strikes are amongst the most prolonged rail strikes in British industrial history, and are a testament to the workers’ refusal to surrender despite the protracted dispute. The Labour Party manifesto for the 12 December general election includes a commit to restore staffing levels to a renationalised railway, which John McDonnell and others have made clear means defending the role of the guard and reinstating guards to services currently running with Driver Only Operation.
The Labour Party should therefore mobilise heavily to support picket lines, and link their policy to the workers’ demands.
On the eve of the strikes, SWR bosses sent every guard an intimidating letter, suggesting workers or the union could be liable for any losses incurred during the strike. An RMT guard wrote an open letter in response, which was published on the Off The Rails blog (see here). We republish it below (abridged).
This is nothing, but scaremongering nonsense. Firstly, let’s be 100% clear, this is legal strike action.
SWR have not guaranteed a guard on every train. The last framework stated that a train could go without a guard on board in “extreme circumstances.” Southern Railway had stated this as well, with their OBS grade. Now over 50% of their trains run regularly without a second member of staff on board...
SWR are scared that we are walking out because they don’t want their middle managers being bogged down in a month’s worth of paperwork in January. Therefore the people at the top of the business are bullying their workforce into trying to cross pickets.
All that SWR are entitled to do are withdraw pay for not signing on for a shift. Because of this legal strike, SWR cannot take any legal action against you personally...
They say that thousands of people will be disrupted. If you look, our core routes are running with buses on ones that are not and alternative transport available. People won’t be disrupted.
Our lives will be when we’re all made redundant.
You will not be paid. But you will receive hardship payments and any annual leave which you are booked on. Please see your local guards’ rep and tell them what you are booked to work. Help us to help you.
You are entitled to swap shifts as per the 1999 GRI agreement: 6.4 Exchange of Duties. Please don’t listen to this false threat. If your rules and assessments are due in December, that’s not your problem. You will just come back to work on 3 January to normal circumstances.
No legal action will be taken against you as a person or employee of SWR. It is illegal to take legal action against employees during legal industrial action. Please take no notice of this letter from SWR. It’s four pages of wasted trees. Support the strikes. Spend December with your families this year. Don’t cross the picket line.