As we write, RMT is balloting 700+ train-catering staff, train managers and senior conductors at First Great Western and 400+ catering staff and guards at Arriva Cross Country for industrial action to save catering facilities on high-speed trains.
On-train catering staff have known for a long time that the very existence of the grade is under threat. So union activists pushed resolutions through branches, grades conferences and RMT’s national AGM, calling on the union to launch a campaign to save the grade.
While the union debated the issue, the companies drove ahead with their plans. First Great Western carried out a survey of passengers’ opinions, and unsurprisingly, the majority replied Yes, we would like an at-seat catering service. What FGW omitted to mention was that this would be instead of a buffet car! Had they told the whole truth, the survey result might have been very different.
FGW has already removed buffet cars from three trains and we suspect it plans to do the same with nearly half of its high-speed fleet. Arriva is using its train refurbs as a pretext to dump catering facilities from long-distance cross-country trains, taking away buffets and shops. Arriva has already cut catering on services to Cornwall and north of Edinburgh and on all services after 8pm.
FGW introduced trolleys in the Christmas timetable in December last year. The Mark 1 trolley had four staff incidents and one passenger incident during a one-week trial! So the company brought in a Mark 2 with an extra wheel for balance, but it still didn’t meet the safety standards that workers need.
Arriva Trains Wales then introduced a new trolley. When staff asked to see the risk assessment, management told them that it was OK, because it was in use on First Great Western. But this was the very same Mark 2 trolley that FGW catering staff had rejected as unsafe!
The key issue for on-train catering staff is lone working. Obviously, we have been using trolleys for years, but there would be two staff on the trolley and/or a buffet car as the base to work from. Until now.
FGW has turned two toilets into storage areas for the food, but each only holds about £200 worth of stock, whereas the buffet car could hold thousands. The storage facility is not chilled, so hygiene standards slip, and sandwiches have to be thrown away much sooner than they would have been if they were kept in a buffet car chiller.
The buffet car was a place where you could feel relatively safe. When union reps asked management where staff were supposed to go if they felt threatened, management replied: Hide in the loos! Not very safe, and not very hygienic!
Without a buffet car, there is nowhere suitable to count your money or store your personal stuff. We have no objection to working trolleys, but it must be in a safe environment and alongside a buffet car.
It is clear that the companies will use this policy as a way to cut staff. FGW has written to everyone, promising that there will be no job losses. But with the fast turnover of staff at Paddington and Bristol, this simply means that they can achieve their job cuts without actually sacking anyone – the jobs will still go, and the remaining staff will pick up the workload.
FGW makes the extraordinary claim that it is removing the buffet cars so that the trains will be lighter and therefore quicker! Perhaps if they also removed the toilets, seats, tables, windows, roof and passengers, the trains might even run on time! FGW has an appalling record on delays, caused by their own crap management not by the weight of the buffet car. Perhaps its motivations are more to do with the £40,000 a year leasing costs it stands to save, and the further savings it will make by cutting jobs.
It is also clear that the next in the firing line will be the guards. Before long, the role and the job security of guards will be in the companies’ sights. Arriva promised years ago to give back full control of powered doors on Voyager trains to guards, but we still see no sign of that happening.
RMT is balloting both guards and catering staff. We are confident of a Yes vote, with staff determined to defend our jobs and conditions, but the union needs to do more to educate guards that they are not ‘alright Jack’ and that by defending catering staff they are defending themselves.
Management are getting their spin out to everyone. FGW’s intranet ‘Connect’ continually tells us how great it is to work for them, complete with personal messages from big cheese bosses. Funnily enough, ‘Connect’ is the same name as Network Rail’s intranet, which played a deadly role in the recent strike ballot among signallers (see pages 8 & 9). Anyone would think that the rail employers had got their heads together to plan and co-ordinate their anti-union propaganda strategy.
A personal letter to staff’s homes from Chief Operating Officer Andrew Haines tells us that FGW is training managers to scab on strikes, but claims that “This in no way undermines the commitment we gave to you and the RMT earlier in the year about not using managers on our services.” Yeah, right. He wants you to think that striking will be ineffective - but he is actually showing that the company fears our industrial strength.
RMT reps and activists in the catering grades are pulling together across the TOCs and the country to oppose these attacks, compiling a dossier of evidence, drafting a charter of demands, and planning a campaign to alert the public. Effective industrial action is now the key to winning.