Aslef picket line Aslef picket line. Photo: @ASLEFunion / Twitter

We need to coordinate action on 1 February, escalate to win, and bring down the government, says the secret train driver

Drivers were enraged and confused when we saw the Rail Delivery Group press release last Friday.

As a union, we’ve been trying to negotiate with them for six and a half months with a meeting with the transport minister penciled in a very long time ago. Clearly, they just haven’t done anything. It almost appears as if they quickly cobbled something together and got it out, even though they knew Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan wasn’t available.

It reached the union at the close of office hours on Friday. That’s not the time to try and instigate negotiations. Worse, it was leaked to the Sun and the Daily Mail before it got to the union! As Mick Whelan said, we won’t negotiate through the tabloid media. We don’t buy or read the Sun or Daily Mail. On occasion, I do pick up used copies left on trains for the cat’s litter tray.

Bonfire of our terms and conditions

Then on Monday, the general secretaries met with the rail minister Huw Merriman (as the RCN and health unions met with Steve Barclay, and the NEU with Gillian Keegan), and we got sight of the document that had been announced. It included all the detail that was missing from the RDG press release: eight pages of strings attached to a pay ‘offer’ that amounts to a pay cut. It’s basically destroying everything we fought for and won since the union was set up in 1880.

For example, they want drivers to work ‘committed’ Sundays. Some drivers already do that, while other drivers don’t, and some drivers have it as part of the working week, where it’s pensionable and you can use it out of your annual leave allowance if you want to have a day off. However, if you’re committed you don’t get that choice, you’ve got to find someone else to cover your shift or you have to work it. What they’ve proposed simply isn’t appropriate.

The RDG estimates that train use on Sundays is 116% of pre-Covid levels. We can believe that because we’ve seen the crowded trains. It’s always been Aslef policy that Sunday should be included in the working week because it guarantees that we can run a service and a good service at that. But it’s only right and fair that our members get remuneration for it. They can take the day off if they need to, without having to beg other drivers to take it off their hands. The pay earned from the day’s work is pensionable because otherwise it’s just compulsory overtime and that’s immoral.

Also, Aslef’s policy means an increase in drivers: creating employment and recruiting more drivers. The companies have a massive shortage of drivers at the moment, as they have for years. They’ve relied on the goodwill of drivers to stay a bit longer to cover another part of a duty that’s not on their job, or coming in on their days off. The only way around that is to recruit more drivers. 

The document discussed with the transport minister represents a wholesale ‘reform’, which is all to do with the new model that the government is trying to implement with a view to creating Great British Railways (GBR). In order to introduce that model, they’re looking at a bonfire of our terms and conditions in order to maximise profits. That’s what it all boils down to.

No Strike clause

And that’s not all. They’ve proposed the role the union plays on the railways and the future of the railways should be a consultative one. We’re not a consultancy body, we’re a trade union and we work through negotiation. 

Every driver knows that none of the RDG’s planned changes are worth the paper they’re written on, let alone the pay rise we deserve. Given just how extreme the strings the RDG has attached are, many are questioning whether this is just to dissuade us from even asking for a pay rise, i.e. if we drop the pay rise, none of these changes come in. In reality, the government is up for a fight.

The final insult is, they’ve added a no-strike clause once the changes are brought in! There’ll be no way we can oppose them after that because we will have agreed to a no-strike clause, which no self-respecting trade union is ever going to do. 

For good measure, the RDG included the usual tabloid smear of ‘greedy train drivers’, including a comparison of our pay with the nurses at the end of the press release. We believe it’s an absolute abomination that we have nurses doing vital work relying on universal credit and foodbanks in order to survive. That is not a sign of a civilised society. Pay the nurses as much as train drivers. It’s that simple. 

Minimum Service

I’ve only just got to Monday of this week. On Tuesday, our one-time transport minister Grant Shapps addressed parliament about the legislative changes the Tories want to bring in: the minimum-service proposals. The different NHS trusts around the country voluntarily and mutually agree a minimum service level with the unions. So, the plan to bring in this all-encompassing legislation is simply not going to work. The NHS is on its knees. You can’t point the finger at ambulance staff striking, saying it’s going to ‘cost lives’ when in actual fact it’s a massive struggle to get an ambulance on a non-strike day anyway. 

The same goes for staffing levels in hospitals. The NHS has been so hollowed out, and nursing as a profession has been made so unattractive as a result of decades of attacks and the austerity of the last twelve years that there’s a huge problem to recruit and retain staff. We’re in a situation where we’ve got chronic understaffing in our hospitals and that’s the problem, not nurses taking strike action.

I know nurses leaving to work in Amazon warehouses because the pay’s better. There’s something deeply, deeply wrong with what’s going on. Consider all the time, effort, training, and dedication that goes into nursing: to go through all of that and then decide ‘I’m better off working in a warehouse’ shows something is fundamentally flawed with our society. 

The Tories’ minimum-services legislation is an attack on the fundamental right to strike. If Peston notices it’s a problem, it clearly is a problem.

National Day of action: 1 February

Coordinating strike action, where all the unions can strike on the same day, has been a long time coming. There are unions such as ours that have been taking industrial action for over six months now. RMT was first and Aslef followed through very quickly after that. It came down to the order in which all the companies pay anniversaries arose. We’ve had strike action from the CWU, in the further-education sector by UCU, PCS, RCN, Unison, Unite, GMB, and others. There has been a groundswell of industrial action which justifies calling on the TUC to coordinate the strike action, something they should have been doing anyway. 

The 1 February is a good day as any, and most people think ‘at last it’s happening’. By the time 1 February comes around, there’ll be other industries returning ballots to take strike action like the NEU and FBU. The combination of all of that means that people will be drawn in by the full force of the working class and its power in withdrawing its labour. We desperately need that to happen. 

It’s brilliant that 100,000 PCS members are set to strike on 1 February. But other unions should be working to announce coordinated action on the day. TUC General secretary Paul Nowak told the Daily Mirror, ‘members aren’t interested in a general strike or taking on the government.’ He says members are only ‘interested in a pay rise.’ The TUC always tries its best to be apolitical. But politics is exactly what we need. 

What working people need is a change of government. The current government is maintaining the status quo. We saw it during the height of the pandemic: they used a public-health emergency to enrich themselves. The dodgy PPE contracts, the Track and Trace – nobody can work out what happened to the £37bn that cost. The rise in inflation, prices, and energy costs was driven by all the profit that was made by the rich.

Now the Tories are turning around to the working class and saying, you can’t have a pay rise because it’s gonna make the problem worse for everybody. Hang on, it was nurses, train drivers, rail staff, postal workers, and all other essential workers who had to continue working through Covid, and now we’re told, ‘we’ve spent all the money, there’s nothing left for you. We’ve all got to tighten our belts’.

We’re told our pay claims, the pay rises we need in order to maintain our quite meagre standard of living, are unaffordable. So, for millions of workers, it’s become a simple case of, if you can’t afford to pay us our pay rise, we can’t afford to work. That’s why working people are taking strike action, and need to continue taking strike action until it becomes clear that not giving working people a pay rise is a political choice. 

Bring down the government

It came out during the Transport Select Committee this week where the general secretaries of the rail unions – Aslef, RMT, and TSSA – were interviewed by the Committee, as well as Steve Montgomery of the Rail Delivery Group and Andrew Haines from Network Rail, who basically admitted that the government is bailing them out to the tune £300-500m: money which could have just paid for everybody’s pay rise. The government is indemnifying the TOCs [Train Operating Companies] and all that money is getting siphoned off to shareholders as opposed to paying for a pay rise and public service. So, it is ideologically and politically driven. And that is why we need to bring the government down. 

The TUC may be in denial about that or complicit in averting what needs to happen, but it still needs to happen. Working people need to take that action, union by union, irrespective of how strongly the TUC supports them or not. 

On Monday, our Aslef Executive Committee will meet to decide upon our next action. Our General Secretary and executive members have had their ears to the ground. They joined our picket lines, which delivered solid strike action again on 5 January. They’re getting around to all our branch meetings. Whatever is decided, it is obvious to everyone on the ground: to win, we have to escalate action.

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