Southern drivers' pay fight: momentum squandered?

Submitted by AWL on 16 June, 2015 - 11:52

As this issue of Off The Rails is being compiled Southern drivers are voting on a new and improved pay offer resulting from the October 2014 pay negotiations. The offer is much, much, worse than what we could expect with a slightly bolder strategy on the part of ASLEF.

Southern initially offered 2.65% to drivers, and claimed any more would be completely impossible as the franchise was coming to an end and they were legally unable to offer more. They used the same reasoning to argue they would be unable to offer anything more than a one year deal. This did not sit well with the majority of drivers as the new franchise has been won by Govia – the same company that run Southern. The name plate above the door is changing, but the people in charge making the money and the decisions are not. Despite ASLEF recommending accepting the deal the membership rejected it.

After several months of back and forth between the company and the union it became clear the company would not budge off 2.65%. We were balloted and voted 92% in favour of striking, on a 85% turnout. Those are absolutely incredible numbers, especially when you consider ASLEF had done virtually no work to build up a yes vote and the large majority of Southern drivers have never taken industrial action. Immediately new negotiations happened and the company offered 2.65% for the first year, then two rises of about 3% over the course of 2015-2016. Both the company and the union focussed on this being an almost 10% pay rise over two years. It has been put to a referendum and the union recommends accepting.

However the deal is not quite as good as it seems. The pay rise for October 2014 is still 2.65%. This is the figure members have now twice overwhelmingly rejected. The 10% rise would leave Southern drivers still earning less than drivers at many other London based TOCs, even assuming the other TOCs would not award pay rises in the meantime. It should also be noted that Southern operate over some of the busiest routes in the country, largely without Guards. Shifts are long and intense.

Many drivers in particular feel they have been lied to by the company. Southern initially said no more than 2.65% could be offered, but has now offered more. They initially said they could not do a two year deal, but have now offered a two year deal. Many drivers will vote no purely on that basis; they know that this proves Southern could quite easily give more if we pushed. It would not be surprising if this new deal is rejected, although almost certainly by a much narrower margin than the strike vote. It may be also be accepted. Many drivers can now see an end in sight and are starting to look forward to a significant sum in backpay.

Where would this leave us? After a 92% ballot any deal rejection will always be less emphatic. There will be vastly less of a mandate than there was before. Even if the deal is rejected by members it would be almost impossible to get more out of the company in future negotiations. They will know the moment has passed and a significant number of drivers just want to settle.

With a 92% vote in favour of action ASLEF clearly had a huge mandate to pursue a decent deal. However what that mandate was for was always going to be unclear. At no point had ASLEF stated to the members what it hoped to get out of the pay deal. The votes have always been to reject the company's offers, never to articulate demands of our own. ASLEF also never involved the membership in articulating demands.

The strike vote, and the precarious position of the company as we enter a new franchise, clearly show we could have achieved almost any demands we might have wanted to put forward. This was a real opportunity to redress the pay gap between Southern and other London based TOCs. However ASLEF were not willing to do that, and the membership were not sufficiently organised to be able to.

A grassroots campaign of meetings to discuss demands and communicate them to other union members would almost certainly have led to great gains in this instance. In the wider political context of anti-union rhetoric the failure to use this mandate for something significant is a huge abdication of responsibility by one of the strongest sections of the working class.

This is a longer version of the article than the one which appeared in the printed edition of Off The Rails.

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