Doncaster Counterfire speaks to ASLEF President Tosh McDonald about the industrial action on Southern Rail
DC: How is the dispute with Southern Rail going?
Very well despite media attempts to turn the public against us. The pickets are getting very good support, and the morale of our members is high. You have to remember that on every one of the four ballots we have held previously, the members have supported action 100 per cent. The media and Southern Rail publish disinformation, which we have to slap down, but the members understand what they are up to.
The big lie that the government is peddling is that we are holding the public to ransom because we are unwilling to push a button to operate the doors. It is nothing like that. Think about the East Coast main line trains that come through Doncaster – they are 9 coaches long. The government want to increase the size of trains to 12 coaches. It is impossible to manage the passenger interface between the train and the platform from the driver’s cab. On some platforms it would be impossible to see the end of the train. Without conductors, managing the safety of passengers on route is also impossible. Drivers are having to work with increasing technology in the cab which takes attention away from the job of actually driving the train and this is going to increase with driver only operation. The trope that ASLEF is refusing to talk to the company about overcoming delays is completely unfounded too. For example, we have successfully negotiated changes of a similar nature with Scot Rail, where our concerns over safety were met and underwritten by the Scottish government. This is not about pay, as the BBC suggests by constantly referring to the ‘cost to the British tax-payer’. It is about safety. The technical system advocated by Southern Rail is called Traction Interlock. The TI system is supposed to guarantee that if a coach door is jammed by a passenger the train’s brakes will automatically stay engaged to prevent the train from moving. But on the Hayes-Harlington line it did not work and a woman was dragged along the platform. Who will be liable if there is serious injury? Chris Grayling? I think you know the answer.
It appears that the government is trying to destroy the rail unions. Is this the case and what would happen if they tried to outlaw strikes on the railways as Grayling has proposed?
Well, as the government is driving the dispute so hard it is blatantly obvious that this dispute is indeed political. ASLEF is a very successful trade union and we support Jeremy Corbyn too. In the government’s view, we are the equivalent of the NUM in the 1980s. We represent a united and reasoned opposition to the madness of privatisation and we use our collective strength to defend our members. Grayling needs to think carefully about what he is saying as regards banning strikes. ASLEF exists to protect the pay and conditions of our members – within the law. If the law changes to take away our right to defend our members it won’t stop our actions, it will simply mean that we will operate outside the law – we would have no other choice. And if we were successful perhaps other unions would be similarly encouraged.
Shouldn’t the TUC be leading the fight against this sort of bullying by the government?
In all honesty, the TUC has missed too many opportunities to lead the fight we need. ASLEF has been left to our own devices when we needed support. ASLEF shows solidarity to all workers in struggle and we have no hesitation in asking for support in return. We will continue to call for the action that can deliver the change we need, and perhaps the TUC could act to coordinate the solidarity, rather than lead it.
You have faced criticism for being a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, the Daily Mail’s piece was particularly nasty. Can the strike be used to strengthen Jeremy’s position as leader of the Labour Party?
Absolutely it can. For the first time ever ASLEF is getting the open support of the Leader of the Labour Party for taking industrial action. Our members are delighted that Jeremy is supporting us and I have no doubt this will carry across the members of other unions too. Trade unionism is crucial in getting improvements for all workers and Jeremy is showing excellent leadership. The Shadow Minister for Transport is also supporting us and this puts real pressure on the Tories who like to demand that Labour condemns all strikes. You have to remember that if we win that will make other trade unions more confident. That in turn, will mean that the proposal to renationalise the railways will become a step closer. If we can turn back privatisation on the railways what about the NHS? Make no mistake the dispute with Southern Rail is extremely important and could mark a turning point in the fortunes of the Labour movement.
What do you think about the Peoples Assembly’s ‘Sack Southern Rail’ petition and is there anything you want to add?
Well firstly there are any number of important things happening at the moment. I mean on the railways alone there other campaigns against redundancy – all ignored by the media. For example, DB Cargo are making 1,000 workers redundant. There is a drivers only dispute on with Northern Rail. In Liverpool ASLEF and RMT members are protesting today outside the offices of Mersey Rail. On top of that ASLEF are supporting other campaigns such as the Sheffield Needs A Pay Rise demo on Saturday. And this is where the Peoples Assembly is so important. ASLEF have always supported the PA and the petition has been distributed to our members to use. The PA makes the links to the wider issues in society such as the crisis in social care and the devastation caused by austerity. We need to fight on every front if we are going to win.