Off The Rails

Fantasy Union of Rail and Transport Workers

Published on: Thu, 03/07/2008 - 09:31

What kind of union do we need? There are strengths and weaknesses in our current union set-up. Union officials will often have you believe that things can only be done the way they are done, because ... well, because they have always been done that way.

We do not agree. We have several criticisms of the existing rail unions, so it is only fair that we set out in more positive terms what our ideal union might look like. Let's call it the Fantasy Union of Rail and Transport Workers (FURT).

Some of the good things about this fantasy union could be put in place by changes in rules and ways of

An open letter to fellow South Western Railway guards: don't give in to bosses' bullying!

Published on: Tue, 26/11/2019 - 18:12

There's been uproar on South Western Railway (SWR) today, as workers received a threatening letter from bosses, attempting to intimidate them out of striking. The letter, which we reproduce below, suggests workers or the union could be liable for any losses incurred during the strike, saying SWR is "entitled to recover the loss and damage in sustains as a result of you participating in the strike." The legality of the letter's claims is dubious; what is not in doubt is that it is a clear attempt by a frightened employer to prevent workers from exercising their right to withdraw their labour.

As RMT guards gear up for what will be the longest rail strike in British history, taking place throughout December, except 12 December, a guard and union activist has written an open letter to their colleagues, responding to the bosses' threats.

Dear all,

I am writing in response to a letter, which you will have received by South Western Railway (SWR) to your addresses this week. This is nothing, but scaremongering nonsense. Firstly, let’s be 100% clear, this is legal strike action. It was completed legally with a ballot and two weeks notice. This strike action is to protect your job and terms and conditions.

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. There was a deal in front of Acas, which has been withdrawn by SWR and First Group up in Aberdeen. SWR are citing that they withdrew the deal because RMT told their members about it. That is complete rubbish. SWR are being peddled by the Department for Transport (DfT) because strikes will be a critical part of this General Election.

Don’t cross the picket lines. Don’t listen to the scaremongering.

SWR are scared that we are walking out because they don’t want their middle managers being bogged down in a months 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.

In the letter they have graciously given us some scary sounding bullet points.

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. (Attached)

If your rules and assessments are due in December, that’s not your problem. You will just come back to work on the 3rd of 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.

Yours faithfully,
An RMT member and guard

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How guards keep trains safe

Published on: Thu, 28/03/2019 - 23:35

A recently published Rail Accident Investigation Board report has again highlighted the important safety function played by the Guard. On 2nd March 2018 trains on the Kent suburban lines running through Lewisham ground to a halt in the icy conditions caused by the “Beast from the East”. One train was left unable to draw into Lewisham station, with the platform about 10 metres ahead of the front of the train. After an hour, with no food or drink or toilet facilities, passengers started to get out onto the track out of desperation. The third rail was still live, the lines were still open to whatever traffic could move. Only two minutes before a train had gone by the door passengers began to leave from. In the confusion it was a further three minutes before the current was isolated.

Southeastern metro services are Driver Only Operated. This was a packed 10 coach evening peak train. The driver was responsible, as the only member of staff onboard, for both communicating with the signaller about what was happening and also managing the passengers onboard. The driver made regular announcements but was confined to their cab, so they could still be in contact with the signaller via the radio. Ultimately a disembodied voice over the PA was insufficient to persuade passengers of the dangers of leaving.

If there had been a Guard on board there would undoubtedly have been far better flow of information to passengers about the general situation. They could have talked to people face to face. The incident investigation highlights the shared feeling of helplessness among the passengers, observed on social media, as a key reason for their growing frustration. The complete absence of visible staff exacerbates this, creating the feeling that no one is coming to help, and no one cares what you do.

A Guard would also have been able to place devices on the track to immediately turn nearby signals to danger and short out the traction current. The driver did this 5 minutes after the passengers had started to leave. Their first priority was to inform the signaller what was happening. There is no escaping the fact that having two safety critical staff on a train rather than just one allows crucial tasks to be performed quicker in an emergency, when delays can be disastrous.

This is the second incident like this to have happened recently on Driver Only Operated trains. In November 2017 a London Overground train broke down 30 meters outside of Peckham Rye station. As in the Lewisham incident the train was busy and had no toilets. The driver had to communicate by radio with London Overground control, the signaller, and the on-call fleet technician, as well as keeping the passengers informed. After an hour of back and forth the entire process broke down as a route controller authorised the train to be evacuated, having gained the impression it was in the station platform not merely close to it. The signaller was unaware this was happening and did not shut the lines or switch off the current.

The driver was in a position to challenge the instruction to evacuate the passengers but didn’t do so. The subsequent RAIB report suggested that working alone in a very challenging situation for a prolonged period had put the driver into “cognitive overload”, and their decision-making capabilities had been greatly diminished. The end result was scores of passengers evacuated the train onto live lines, walking in the dark inches away from the third rail on uneven ballast over a narrow roadbridge. The evacuation was only halted when the Peckham Rye station manager realised what was happening and informed the controller exactly where the train was. They were the only other safety critical member of staff anywhere nearby.

Cutting Guards jobs is taking a chance on safety. We know the risks are there; it is just that the industry considers those risks to be acceptable. We need to campaign not just to keep Guards jobs where they are threatened, but to reinstitute Guards where they have been cut long ago.

Trade Unions

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Northern rolling stock

Will Northern try to buy off drivers to undermine guards' victory?

Published on: Mon, 11/02/2019 - 23:28

The breakthrough in the anti-DOO dispute is a cause for celebration, but some caution must also be exercised. No formal settlement has yet been reached, and the "other stakeholders" referred to in Acas chair Brendan Barber's letter to RMT General Secretary Mick Cash must be drivers' union Aslef.

Aslef has past form selling out RMT members as well as its own members in the big DOO dispute with GTR Southern in 2016/17. In addition, Aslef reps on the Northern Company Council has been acting to aid the company in pushing forward its DOO agenda.

In June last year, they deliberately bailed the company out from having the franchise confiscated by agreeing to sanction voluntary overtime for drivers, in return for a £1,000 cash payment to each driver. They were roundly lambasted by their members soon after, when it was discovered that they had mistakenly failed to check the wording of the agreement, meaning that although overtime rates increased for longer-serving drivers, for newly qualified drivers they were actually lower under the new agreement than they had been the last time there was a rest day working agreement in place.

Despite promising to rectify their mistake, they have allowed rest day working to continue for six months under this shoddy agreement, and recently recommended a further three-month extension.

The extent to which these reps are in the employers' pockets runs still deeper. It recently emerged that they have negotiated extra release from driving duty for themselves (but not local level reps), so that even if a meeting they were due to attend is cancelled, they are still given extra "staff side" time. Worse still, they recently recommended the union accept a training agreement for new rolling stock that includes drivers being expected at certain times to check CCTV screens showing feeds from inside the train - something that a driver has absolutely no reason to do when operating a service that is also staffed by a guard.

Commendably, the Aslef Executive Committee refused to accept that agreement - presumably because they realised that the Company Council reps have gone rogue and are now willing to do more or less anything the employer wants them to do in return for the vaguest promises of future improvements to drivers' salaries or terms and conditions.

So there is a clear and present danger to this hard-won victory. Northern bosses and the DfT will try to buy drivers off and snatch back the win for their side - RMT must not allow any secret talks between Aslef and the company. Ideally they should fight to bring Aslef into joint talks, to ensure that they are not forced into giving away any more than absolutely necessary for Aslef to then try to capitalise.

The Aslef leadership should learn from the condemnation they rightfully received when they agreed to exclude RMT from the talks with Southern brokered by TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady, and agree to joint talks as set out in Brendan Barber's letter.

Trade Unions


Submitted by Shelagh Hewitt (not verified) on Sun, 12/05/2019 - 09:27

If the drivers decide to go with this deal it says as much about themselves as it does about ASLEF. ASLEF is a totally self serving union have no solidarity with other unions. Merseyrail ASLEF reps are the exception to the rule. Their drivers are a credit to the union movement. Also a handful of Northern drivers have never crossed the picket lines and thy deserve to be congratulated on their actions.

Submitted by Mr. A. Norther… (not verified) on Wed, 26/06/2019 - 23:19

In reply to by Shelagh Hewitt (not verified)

I don't quite agree with you. Drivers' attitudes cannot be divorced totally from the leadership they are getting from their union. If this deal sails through with a 70%-80% Yes vote then perhaps you would be right but I don't think it will, because the reality is a bit more complex. Some of us are greedy and disgracefully it is those people who are receiving validation and encouragement from their leaders at present but this flies in the face of what ASLEF tells itself and others it believes in. But we're not inherently 'worse' as a grade compared to others.

If our Council were loudly proclaiming a refusal to engage with the company until it clarified its position on DOO, the meatbags in the current leadership would be applauding their principled stance (like they do now with the Merseyrail reps) and the greedy bastards would be drowned out by people who agree that it's not right to betray other workers. There are plenty of drivers who believe the unions should be sticking together and they have been discouraged from following the lead of the handful of us that respect picket lines by their own self-serving reps.

The situation at Merseyrail gives reason to hope that ASLEF need not always be what it is right now. There's a mountain to climb - most of the current activist layer see nothing wrong with professing labour movement ideals in theory but acting like shitbags in practice and they train new activists in their own image.

But some of us are trying to buck the trend.

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"In unity is strength" graphic

After Northern victory: don't let the bosses divide us!

Published on: Mon, 11/02/2019 - 23:17

Off the Rails has been covering the recent developments in RMT's dispute with Arriva Rail North, operators of Northern Railway over the company's plan to introduce Driver Only Operation.

In a letter from Acas chair Brendan Barber, RMT were informed that the company and Department for Transport were now willing to agree to a "Conductor on every train... ...for the remainder of the franchise". The letter invited the union to talks with the company and "other stakeholders" to discuss any necessary "changes to the operational mode".

The main "other stakeholders" here are Aslef, the union representing the vast majority of drivers. Aslef's leaders must not be allowed to collude in a sabotage the RMT's victory by agreeing to separate talks, which would open the door to a deal transferring hugely significant parts of the guard/conductor's operational responsibility onto the driving grade in return for improvements to drivers' terms and conditions.

Unions representing guards and drivers must negotiate together, in joint talks, to ensure a deal which pushes back DOO and protects the rights, and terms, and conditions of workers in all grades.

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Northern guards on a picket line

Northern workers win!

Published on: Mon, 11/02/2019 - 23:09

After nearly 50 days of strikes, Northern guards have forced their employer, Arriva Rail North (ARN), to scrap a plan to impose "Driver Only Operation" (DOO). ARN has instead committed to maintain a conductor on every Northern train, including on services using new or newly modified rolling stock.

This is a massive victory for Northern workers, who have won a prolonged war of attrition with a previously intransigent employer, backed up by a Tory government determined not to cave into union pressure. If the victory is consolidated it could be one of the biggest wins for the labour movement in Britain for some time.

The strikes have forced a shift in position not only from ARN, but from the Department for Transport too, which has agreed to further fund the franchise and to alter the requirements laid out in the franchise specification document.

Brendan Barber, the former head of the TUC who now chairs conciliation service Acas, confirmed ARN’s climb-down in a letter to the RMT, in which he invited the union to further mediated talks with ARN on the basis of their commitment to retain a conductor on all services.

The discussions that will now take place to agree a method of working trains in future will still need to be approached with care by the union, although they can now negotiate from a much stronger position.

New technology is still going to be introduced, and "other relevant stakeholders" will still be involved with the negotiations. ARN are highly likely to want to transfer as much of the current guard/conductor's job as possible over to the driver, and will want to try to bribe drivers' union Aslef to help them.

RMT must stay on its guard until they have an acceptable settlement in black and white, and refuse to tolerate any attempts by the employer to negotiate with Aslef behind their backs.

Workers must also resist pressure, for example from moderate elements within unions and the Labour Party, to take the threat of further strikes off the table or to wind down disputes elsewhere. Worryingly, the RMT press release announcing the win reserved special praise for Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, the Labour mayors of Greater Manchester and Merseyside respectively. In reality their role has been inconsistent at best, mainly centring around attempts to broker a fudged compromise rather than throwing their weight and the weight of their offices fully behind the workers and their strikes.

The Northern victory should also serve to revive action on Merseyrail, where the RMT has been tied up in slow-moving negotiations. The RMT branches organising Merseyrail workers have passed policies calling for a return to industrial action, and guards’ strength on Merseyrail is bolstered by the fact that it is the only train company where they can rely on the solidarity of large numbers of Aslef drivers.

Further strikes on Merseyrail and South Western, where RMT guards recently voted by a resounding 84% for further strikes, in a new ballot forced on them by the stipulations of the anti-union laws, could see the momentum of the Northern victory translated into wider gains. More widely, the victory on Northern should give organised workers not just in the rail industry but across the country confidence and hope.

It shows what can be achieved by determined, sustained strikes, and by knowing what your red lines are in any negotiations and sticking to them. When the negotiations are completed there will be more to say about the lesson we can draw from this long dispute, but for now we should celebrate a big step forward.

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Off The Rails bulletin - February 2019

Off The Rails bulletin - February 2019

Published on: Sat, 02/02/2019 - 17:04

We've collated a few recent items from our blog into a printed bulletin, for distribution at workplaces.

Look out for it in a mess room near you!

Click here to download the PDF.

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Govia Thameslink Railway: a view from the frontline

Published on: Mon, 21/01/2019 - 19:12

The DOO strikes on Southern have been over for a while now. The next big battle will be over proposed cuts to platform dispatch jobs, which are likely to be targeted on Brighton mainline stations. Lots of managers have been trained as "contingency" dispatch staff in the event of a strike. But as always the issue will be what Aslef drivers will do.

On the Great Northern and Thameslink side it's a more peculiar picture. When that was West Anglia Great Northern, and then First Capital Connect, they had a management policy of no strikes - which meant they conceded almost any demand Aslef made. The RMT have very little power as guards and platform dispatch staff were largely cut on those routes in the 90s. So workers have no real experience of being involved in a prolonged dispute involving industrial action, and the management have an ingrained culture of not wanting confrontation. The whole point of the GTR franchise is to drive through DOO, new routes through the London core, and bring in new trains. So we have a peculiar cold war going on at the moment over the 717 units that are being introduced on the Great Northern metro route (which will no doubt at the end of this franchise all be parcelled off as a new London Overground of TfL Rail route).

Aslef health and safety reps have decided they can use this introduction to try and fight DOO. So they're pushing for more and more platform staff. But Aslef on GN route have accepted DOO for nearly 30 years, so it's all a bit muddled. They're objecting to various bits and pieces they've been happy to accept until no. And the Aslef full timers won't touch it. Normally this would be an untenable position for a union. They're not organising around this at all at workplace level, just sending reps to meetings to object. But the management have no concept of how to push back against it, as their long-standing policy has been to just give in. So the 717s, which were due in November, are nowhere near introduction and its not clear how it will all pan out.

There are rumours circulating that GTR will be given a two-year extension on its franchise. The optics of that will be appalling after what happened in May but the rumour is that the franchising system is in such a mess the Department for Transport don't want to actually touch it if they can avoid it. All round… a complete shit show of incompetence!

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DOO strike

An open letter to fellow ASLEF drivers: which side are we on?

Published on: Fri, 19/01/2018 - 10:56

To download the article below as an A4 bulletin, click here.

“It has long been the tradition in ASLEF to respect picket lines whether they are our own or those of fellow trade unionists.” - ASLEF  members’ diary


Dear Driver,

I am writing to you, as a fellow ASLEF driver, because I want to persuade you that we need to change how we approach the current RMT disputes over DOO/DCO.

We may, most of us, be in a separate union, but I believe that our interests in this matter are bound up with those of the guards. If we allow them and their union to be defeated, we will soon have to work Driver-Only trains. ASLEF policy may firmly be against DOO on paper, and our leaders may have assured us that we will be in dispute if any TOC dares to formally table DOO/DCO for negotiation, but you only have to look to Southern to realise that even if that time comes, it doesn’t necessarily end well for drivers. The deal struck to end ASLEF’s dispute on Southern is, by our leaders’ own admission, not the deal they wanted, nor is it an acceptable model for the rest of the industry. It is more or less an open secret that ASLEF leaders were desparate to settle with Southern to avoid around £500k in court costs and an ongoing Supreme Court case.

The leaders of our union have had their fingers badly burned by the court cases brought against us over the Southern disputes, and as a result they are taking a conservative stance on other TOCs. Our employers are using that very much to their advantage by avoiding tabling the subject in any dealings with ASLEF, while giving RMT the runaround in sham “talks” and aiming to grind them down over multiple strike days in a long dispute.

I am addressing this letter to the majority of drivers, who know that DOO is unsafe, is bad news for drivers and the public, and who do not want to see their colleagues’ jobs devalued or wiped out.

What this situation needs is for us to stop crossing picket lines.

I want address some of the commons arguments against this that I’ve heard or read since all this started:

1. “It’s not our fight”

Both RMT and ASLEF as organisations are against DOO/DCO. If there’s a fight against the practice, it’s our fight too. This is just an excuse that stems from ASLEF’s current position in law in relation to the dispute, but Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union laws do not override what is right and wrong. If DOO is wrong, fighting it is right, and undermining any such fight must surely be wrong. When we cross those picket lines, come into work and drive trains around with scab “guards” on the back, we are undermining that fight.

2. “When ASLEF calls me out on strike, I’ll strike”

ASLEF may never call us out on strike. The TOCs and the Department for Transport know what they are doing: if the RMT is broken and forced to settle before they have to trigger disputes with us, it will be much harder for us to justify what appears to be a fight “for another grade’s jobs” when they themselves seem to have been beaten. The solid public support for keeping guards on trains will not directly carry over to us if the fight is already considered to have been lost, and in the wake of the Southern deal it will be far easier for the anti-union press to spin our dispute as being purely over money. We could find ourselves in a situation where it is too late.

3. “RMT have triggered these disputes too soon”

ASLEF drivers are entitled to their opinions about RMT’s tactics and strategy. But solidarity is not conditional on agreeing with every aspect of another union’s approach.

Personally I believe RMT has made mistakes in the disputes, but this doesn’t change the basic facts: a group of fellow workers is in struggle, in our workplaces, over an issue that profoundly affects us too. Solidarity is a trade-union principle.

4. “The RMT haven’t even stopped Rest Day Working, it’s rubbish, why should we support them?”

See point 3. We cannot control another union’s tactical decisions, we can only control what WE do.

5. “I hate the RMT because of X, why should I support them?”

This is not about factional squabbles between ASLEF and RMT or the fallings-out between the leaderships of the two unions, this is about keeping guards on trains. The Tory government, via the TOCs, is trying to break the guards as a grade by removing their safety-critical status and thus stripping their union of its industrial power. How many of us have family or friends in the guard’s grade? This is about our partners, parents, children, friends, drinking buddies. This is about the people that work alongside us and that we rely on when the job goes belly up. They are part of our class. The different badges we wear are insignificant compared to that.

6. “ASLEF’s advice is to work as normal.”

Which advice? The union issues advice to all its members on their rights if asked to respect a picket line by members of another union. It’s on a page in the ASLEF diary headed “Picket Lines”. It’s in there every year. It says: “It has long been the tradition in ASLEF to respect picket lines whether they are our own or those of fellow trade unionists.” This is a core value of the union to which we all signed up and pay subs.

The union also issues circulars to branches advising members to work normally. It does this to protect its legal position in the event that its members do choose not to cross picket lines. Looking at the situation on Merseyrail, this circular is the reason ASLEF hasn’t been dragged into court over the fact that its members aren’t coming in to work.

I’ve even seen reps trotting out this line, without reference to our rights as individual workers as spelled out to us in the diary.

The reason for this is clear - they don’t want to respect the lines and they don’t want their members to either. This is not principled trade unionism or a good example to set for the members they represent; but it doesn’t change our rights.

So which advice do you prefer? You can choose according to your conscience as others will choose according to theirs, but let there be no doubt that it is a choice.

7. “I’m worried I’ll be disciplined”

No ASLEF member has been disciplined anywhere in the country for refusing to cross a picket line in any of these disputes.

The TOCs do not want a dispute with ASLEF, which they would surely get if they tried to do discipline our members. Arriva Rail North even gave the union an explicit undertaking that none of its members would be disciplined for refusing to cross. Our union will protect us - that’s what it’s there to do.

The arguments about basic solidarity and respect for picket lines are hard to win these days but it was on the basis of these principles that the labour movement of the twentieth century won all its major victories - the rights at work we take for granted today. Those principles are what will win this dispute. Those principles are what the Tory anti-union laws sought to destroy.

I've seen various stories about some of these issues on social media dismissed by ASLEF activists as “anti-ASLEF propaganda”. I am not anti-ASLEF, I have no intention of leaving the union. I just want us to change course.

We have a choice. On strike days, we can do one of two things: turn back at the picket line or cross and report for duty, working trains with scabs (some of whom are being paid handsome bonuses for their dirty work) and undermining our fellow workers the guards and the fight against DOO. That is the inescapable reality.

The fundamental question is: which side are we on?

Merseyrail: spread the solidarity!

On Merseyrail, nearly 100% of ASLEF drivers have respected RMT picket lines. We need to make this the rule rather than the exception.

Trade unionists there have worked hard to build up a culture of solidarity in the depots, persuading ASLEF drivers that, even though the fight against DOO wasn’t formally an ASLEF dispute, all workers had a shared interest in winning it.

Merseyrail drivers have put that assessment into action by refusing to cross picket lines. As noted elsewhere in this leaflet, no driver has been disciplined for this.

We need to spread the solidarity.

Proper pickets preferable

As we all know, there are picket lines, and there are picket lines. A group of strikers shuffling nervously in a huddle, away from the actual entrances to stations or depots, isn’t likely to have much impact.

Where picket lines are most successful is when they’re lively, assertive, and mounted at the points where workers actually go into work. This allows pickets to have a conversation with workers coming in, and potentially turn them around.

At depots with multiple entrances and potential booking-on points, this might require some creative picketing, but it can be done.

Strikers shouldn’t be cowed by the anti-union laws. A single "picket supervisor" can supervise multiple pickets, as long as they can access them in reasonable time.

The longer the picket line, the shorter the strike!

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