On Tuesday 19 March, Hackney’s special needs transport workers struck to demand shift allowances.
Two dozen strikers joined the picket line at the depot in Leyton, and were in good spirits despite the drizzle. Pickets included both passenger escorts and drivers, and the majority were black and ethnic minority women.
Only four workers had broken the strike, which was the first of six named days of action.
Hackney Labour Party activists attended the picket line and told strikers that although the Labour Council is frustrating them, rank-and-file members support them.
Labour members now plan to propose emergency motions to next week’s Constituency Labour Party meetings calling on the Council to settle the dispute in favour of the workers’ claim.
The workers provide the service that transports children with special educational needs and disabilities to school and other provision. They work “split shifts”, with a long, unpaid break between the two halves of their working day.
Through their union, Unite, they are claiming compensation of £50 per week for doing this tiring and antisocial work pattern, which trade unionists have succeeded in scrapping elsewhere.
The Council is refusing the claim on the grounds that the workers are covered by the “Green Book” of nationally-negotiated local authority working conditions, but the union argues that allowances can be awarded locally.
Council managers held a meeting with workers, but only to remind them that it gives them benefits such as theatre tickets and gym membership, as though these were an adequate substitute!
If the Council does not back down, there will be further strikes on 26, 27 and 28 March, and then on 2 and 4 April.
Rail disputes sidetracked?
In early February, the long-running disputes between the rail union RMT and rail companies over Driver Only Operation (DOO) of trains seemed to be nearing victory.
They moved into negotiations on the principle that guards’ jobs would be kept.
But, over a month on, all is quiet. There is little feedback from the union leadership to members.
At Merseyrail, the dispute went into negotiations on the principle of keeping guards’ jobs as long ago as August 2018. We expected an actual settlement when a meeting was held recently between RMT negotiators and Merseyrail bosses under the auspices of the government arbitration service ACAS..
But not yet. For months now Merseyrail have had the RMT in talks with scant information filtering out, even though the RMT members in Merseyrail have been exceptionally strong and have had exceptional solidarity from ASLEF drivers.
The length of time that a deal is taking to finalise on Merseyrail suggests that the victory on safety-critical guards’ jobs may come at a disappointingly heavy price.
At SWR, where strikes have also been suspended for talks, members have had no information from the union on the progress of talks for over two weeks.
ACAS Chair Brendan Barber has invited RMT to talks with Northern Rail on the basis of “a conductor on every train”, with discussion to cover “future modes of operation” and to include “other relevant stakeholders”. The talks are ongoing, but little to no information is filtering out.
The danger in all these disputes is that momentum is lost and talks are dragged until weariness allows unacceptable settlements.
Rail companies are going to want the RMT to concede as much as possible, as the thin end of a wedge to be driven further later. The drivers’ union ASLEF, on Northern Rail at least, appears to be trying to wear the face of a trade union publicly while privately positioning itself to co-operate with the employer in transferring parts of the guard’s job to the driver in return for improved pay or conditions.
There are no strike dates currently scheduled at any of the franchises, nor — as far as anyone knows — have any deadlines been set for the talks to produce meaningful progress or risk triggering more strikes.
The stand of railworkers on this issue has been absolutely steadfast. So why are the union leaders being so “soft”?