We are currently in the middle of the most intense period of industrial unrest for decades. As I write, junior doctors have recently completed five days of strike action, with another four-day stoppage announced for August. Hospital consultants will strike for two days in August too, and whilst some disputes have been settled, other professions are undertaking fresh ballots.
I work for one of the 15 passenger Train Operating Companies currently in dispute with their train crew – both drivers and train managers – over pay, terms and conditions. I’ve driven trains for eighteen years and have been a member of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) for all of that time. This isn’t the first dispute which has arisen during that time but it is the first time I have taken industrial action whilst a member of this union.
ASLEF is a relatively small Trade Union. Membership is around 21,000, about 96 per cent of all train drivers. Traditionally, the grade was not particularly well paid, with long hours, anti-social shifts and a dangerous working environment all part of the job that our forebears accepted. Over the last thirty years or so the union has incrementally addressed the worst aspects of the job through patient negotiation with train operating companies and Railtrack’s publicly owned successor, Network Rail. Pay has also become more attractive. The Hidden Report, written after poor working practices involving long hours and unbroken stretches of duty led to the Clapham disaster, also gave the rail unions the opportunity to address those issues and we now have sensible breaks between shifts, no extended periods where we work without days off and far more emphasis on health and safety than was once the case. These were changes for the better, leading to a safer railway.
Many drivers believe that the proposed changes to working practices, in exchange for what is still a below-inflation pay rise (in effect a pay cut), will reverse these improvements through longer hours and further short-notice changes to shifts and Days Off. There are genuine concerns around safety – post-Privatisation, the rail industry suffered a period of casualisation around maintenance which led to the rail disasters at Hatfield and Potters Bar, and there is a decent argument to be made that more ‘flexible’ working practices amount to the same thing with the same risks.
Although pay has often been the focus of media reports it is the attempt to change the terms and conditions under which train drivers are employed that is the kernel of the dispute. Whilst each of the Train Operating Companies has slight differences in their terms and conditions – an inevitable result of a fractured privatised rail industry – union negotiators have been faced with proposals for sweeping changes to some of our most basic working conditions, conditions that have been hard won by all those union members who went before us. The most recent document containing proposals from the Rail Delivery Group (the umbrella organisation that negotiates on behalf of the 15 passenger Train Operating Companies where disputes are ongoing) baldly states that ‘existing terms and conditions can be restrictive and outdated... Existing company and local agreements relating to Working Arrangements... will be rescinded’. These include regressive changes to weekend working, sick pay arrangements, annual leave entitlement and ‘flexible’ working – which could include moving our Days Off at very short notice, changing our booking on times at similarly short notice and committing us to work compulsory overtime, thereby extending the length of time we are driving trains.
It cannot be overstated how important a good work-life balance is in such a safety-critical job, and we as a profession have seen how easily that work-life balance can be degraded when looking at (mostly) freight company start-ups, where drivers are routinely expected to put work before home life.
Other changes the Rail Delivery Group/Department for Transport (DfT) wish to see include making us drive trains on a day when we are also due to attend company-stipulated medical appointments, and ‘a technology-enabled approach’ to driver training – currently a trainee spends 200+ hours accumulating hands-on training from a highly experienced driver in a wide range of operating conditions. The fear is that future trainees may spend as much time ‘learning’ from a DVD or on a computer simulator as they do in a driving cab.
But this industrial unrest is different from previous disputes – whilst the rail unions negotiate with the private train operating companies who employ us, it is the DfT who have the ultimate say in whether a deal ‘flies’ or not. So far the DfT has refused any agreements hammered out at the negotiating table, insisting on changes to our terms and conditions which they are fully aware the RMT and ASLEF membership cannot countenance. In that sense, these are very political disputes, with the aim of the Government clearly being to diminish the Unions. The recent proposal to close all booking offices should be seen in the same light – there is no logical reason for it, other than abolishing hundreds of jobs in well-organised, unionised occupations.
Whilst the lack of support for our dispute from the Labour Party is very noticeable (and is the subject of frequent comment in the messroom), the Green Party fully understands the importance of strong Trade Unions. Caroline Lucas MP spoke out forcibly against the Government anti-strike legislation – the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 – which sadly made it into law in July. She said:
“The anti-strike, anti-union, anti-worker, anti-democracy Bill is back in the House of Commons today. I’m voting against this increasingly authoritarian Government’s plans which amount to the sacking of workers for striking. The right to strike must be protected.”
There is an active Green Party Trade Union Group, and whilst the links between the Trade Union movement and the Labour Party remain very strong, the ‘love’ often seems to flow only one way. Clue: it isn’t from the Labour executive towards the Trade Union movement. Meanwhile, the Green Party has much in common with many Union objectives – ASLEF has a stated position in favour of Proportional Representation for example, as do many other unions, and indeed the majority of the Labour Party membership, though that is another subject entirely!
In conclusion, where ASLEF has been able to negotiate freely with employers, they have successfully concluded negotiations without exception, including passenger companies such as Arriva Rail London, Hull Trains, Grand Central, Merseyrail, Scotrail and Transport for Wales. As ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan frequently says; ‘we are in this for the long haul’, and with successive ballot results (we have been balloted three times so far since this dispute began) returning rock-solid support for our negotiating teams, we will ultimately see a satisfactory result for train crew which will also keep the railway safe for our passengers, as well as proving the importance of effective, strong trade unions.