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

Coordinated strike action and protests hold the potential to unleash a force that could crash the Tories on the rocks, says the secret train driver

The year has only just begun and we’re on strike again for the 7th time in a dispute that’s been rumbling on since last summer. It’s a very straightforward dispute to understand – we’ve now entered the 4th year without a pay rise!

Back in March 2020, the world became a very different place with the arrival of Covid. Train drivers and rail staff in general continued to work throughout the pandemic so society could function. Other key workers needed to get to their place of work, hospital staff had to be transported to save lives, medical equipment had to be transported, food had to be supplied. It was an extremely challenging time for everybody, people were losing their lives and loved ones, there was massive uncertainty whether people would be able to sustain their jobs and livelihoods. We were expected to keep on going and carry on. We were lauded as heroes during the pandemic and now we’ve gone back to being zeros as it were.

The money is there to pay us and all workers in dispute. Remember the government’s Track and Trace that cost an eye-watering sum of money – nobody really knows where the money’s gone – or the dodgy PPE contracts? Now it’s time to cough up, not just for us as train drivers but everybody who’s having to take strike action in these very challenging circumstances we find ourselves amidst a cost of living crisis.

Maximum disruption

Our determination is extremely strong. All our strikes have been solid. It’s almost a moral obligation to stand up for ourselves and our living standards because we know our own worth. And we know we deserve to be rewarded for the work that we’ve done and do.

The problem with the rail dispute is the government is indemnifying the train operating companies against losses so our fight is actually with the government, with the train operating companies as a proxy. The consensus is that we all need to coordinate strike action not only across the rail unions, like we did on 1 October last year and again this week, but with other industries as well.

It feels like we have the makings of what I believe resembles something like the General Strike of 1926. There’s so many disputes which yes, are technically and legally separate disputes, but they are all about the same thing: the fact that people need a pay rise that at least matches inflation because inflation is so high and the fact that the price of necessities like foodstuffs and energy is higher still.

So, we do absolutely need to co-ordinate between industries in order to inflict the maximum amount of disruption because that’s how strikes succeed. That’s how we win.

Authoritarian government

We absolutely do need to coordinate particularly with the health service workers where their strikes are under threat of being undermined by the involvement of the military. The government threatens more draconian anti-union legislation against us all. The logical counter-point to that would be that we need a government to undo all of that legislation. But I’m not sure we’re in a position that we can rely on the Labour Party to do that for us. 

We’ll need to have protests as part of our movement coordinated with the strikes to take that on. It is a worrying situation because we have some of the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe which certainly puts us on a par with certain dictatorships around the world and it’s frightening.

It’s part of an increasing authoritarian trend in this government. The former Labour MP Tony Benn once said, the way the government treats immigrants is very instructive because it’s the way they would treat everybody if they could get away with it. The Tories’ obsessive intent to deliver mass deportations of people seeking UK asylum to Rwanda is despicable – they have a right to claim asylum here. We’ve seen a massive clamping down on all our civil liberties in terms of the right to protest in recent years under Priti Patel and it’s actually getting worse with Suella Braverman. We have to fight for our rights. We’ve got to be ready to fight these attacks head on.

But the government has problems, it’s been caught sleeping at the wheel. I don’t think it’s going as well for them as they hoped. Sure, the train operating companies are all being indemnified against their losses for strike days and the resulting overtime bans but it has kind of got to the point where the companies are now worried people are being driven away from the railway altogether and this is going to impact on their finances once this dispute is solved. Passenger numbers are still below the worst projection the government came up with post-Covid.

Public support

They’ve also underestimated the amount of public support striking workers are getting. It’s the first rail strike that has had a positive public approval rating possibly in living memory or certainly for a very, very long time. And that support is growing.

The government is now extremely keen not to cave in to any demands because they’re all piling up, they’re not going away and they fear if they give in to one industry such as the railways then they’re going to have to honour similar sorts of pay rises across the board. They’re particularly worried about the nurses given what they went through during the height of the pandemic. Now they don’t want to give them the pay rise that they deserve in order to have a standard of living where they don’t have to rely on universal credit or foodbanks which is an absolute outrage.

The opposition has been extremely weak and continues to be so. The sacking of Sam Tarry was such a bad look. All Labour has done ever since is say both sides need to get back around the table. Well I’m sorry that’s not a stance, that will have to happen anyway in any sort of situation where there is a dispute, so simply saying that over and over again really isn’t good enough. We need to know whose side they’re on. You can’t be in an industrial dispute of this scale and across so many industries, and stand in the middle of the road.

Our power

As a movement, we can resist and we need to stand together. The whole point of the union is that the members of the union are stronger together than they are as separate individuals. The same thing goes for the movement as a whole. I think we really need the TUC to step up and help coordinate the action between the different unions as well.

We’ve got the ‘heart unions’ week coming up in February. This would be an ideal opportunity to draw in all the industries that hold ‘live’ ballots and those soon to declare ballots and coordinate between all the different industries and unions and take strike action. Then the government will feel the full force of our movement – when the bins don’t get emptied, when you can’t access an ambulance, when the fire brigade are not available. That kind of action is what would put the government on the rocks. And it could lead to a general election where people in general can have their say and kick the Tories out!

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