Southern Rail train drivers and guards continue their strike action, Jonathan Maunders reports from the picket lines
On Tuesday hundreds of train stations laid empty as Southern’s train drivers began a 48 hour strike, joining guards in opposing the company’s attempts to degrade staff and safety.
As passengers found alternate modes of transport, a number of picket lines formed throughout the Southern rail network with strikers making their concerns clear and generating support and solidarity in their local areas.
Southern rail has been unrelenting in its efforts to reduce the number of staff on its trains, many with thousands of passengers, to just a driver. Despite genuine concerns from Aslef and the RMT over passenger safety, the rail company has arrogantly dug its heels in, leaving workers with little option but to strike.
While Southern has maintained it will keep a second member of staff on some of the network’s trains, it plans to take the responsibility of operating the doors from the guards and to force it on drivers. Despite the company’s claims that this is a form of modernisation, it appears illogical that drivers would be better suited in this role than guards, with the latter far better placed to detect and react to danger and incidents.
However, the reality of this change in role soon becomes clear when analysed and discussed with the staff themselves. If the responsibility of operating the doors is withdrawn from the guards, their role would become less focussed on security and technical support and more on customer service. It does not require in-depth analysis to understand the effects of this are two –fold.
Firstly, diminishing the responsibility of the guards would allow the company to question their utility further down the line, potentially seeing an end to any trains operated by two people, heaping more pressure on drivers and further risking passenger safety.
Secondly, even if Southern do genuinely want to keep a second member of staff on some of their trains, reducing the responsibilities of guards and rebranding the position would enable the company to significantly reduce the wages it pays, with the familiar spectre of zero-hours and part-time contracts reported to be in the offing.
With this reality in mind, it becomes easy to dispel the frighteningly simplistic narrative mainstream media outlets like the BBC have been keen to peddle in recent weeks, purely and predictably framing the strike action as unions afraid of modernisation.
While there is mounting pressure on the government to step in to remove the service from Southern, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has done nothing to allay the concerns of staff and passengers, unsurprisingly repeating Southern’s flawed and vague line of argument.
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has again reiterated his offer to place Southern under the control of Transport for London, an offer that has been ignored by the Department for Transport. Instead, it would appear government ministers are instead, once again, moving in the direction of trying to outlaw such strikes, undermining the rights of workers and attempting to conceal Southern’s intentions.
Many train drivers that I spoke to on a picket line were despondent and exasperated at the way Southern has attempted to batter through these changes, arguing that the company’s lack of communication and sheer arrogance has made the strikes an inevitability. Several guards joined the picket line to show the train staff’s togetherness in demanding better treatment from their employer.
Despite the bulk of mainstream media coverage failing to adequately cover the genuine motives of those striking, the overwhelming majority of passers-by (many of whom were affected by the action) were keen to show their support, illustrating the clear divide between the media narrative and the perceptions and experiences of ordinary people.
Many regular passengers were keen to remind me that while Southern attempts to blame recent poor service on strikes, standards have been progressively poor over a number of years, with a dire lack of staffing cited by passengers and drivers alike.
These strikes by Aslef and the RMT are a hugely important device in both politicising the debate and mounting pressure on Southern and the government to act. As socialists, our first instinct must be to support and rally around those fighting against oppressive employers and this situation, a gruelling fight between maltreated staff and a government-backed rail calamity, can be no different. For generations, striking has been the simplest and most effective weapon workers have had in pushing for change and in an era of zero-hours contracts and unjust Tory governments, it is no less important.