Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/486/2399
One big rail union?
A member of the train drivers union, ASLEF, argues the case for one single union in the rail industry.
IN 2006, the three unions which organise in the rail industry came together to campaign to defend pension rights from attack. This had a limited but important success in capping contribution rates for a temporary period, and among other issues agreeing a mechanism to reduce the number of rail pension schemes from the over 100 then existing.
The unions concerned are ASLEF, with about 18,500 members among train drivers, RMT with about 75,000 other rail and bus workers, including about 6,000 train guards and some train drivers, and the TSSA, with about 30,000 clerical and supervisory staff in transport.
Since then ASLEF and RMT have engaged in a spat over membership poaching, which has been resolved for the time being. They agreed to work together and not to issue unhelpful comments about the other union. ASLEF and RMT back John McDonnell for Labour Party leader but only ASLEF has a vote to cast and that is relatively small.
There are a large number of train-operating companies, plus employers such as London Underground who are delighted to exploit the differences between the unions with the argument: "We can't offer you a bigger pay rise, the drivers have had it all".
They dangle a carrot to one group of workers to sign a deal knowing this puts pressure on the others to fall into line. The clearest example of this is London Underground's antics in offering to award a pay rise to ASLEF and TSSA members and then to actually put the rise in their pay packets while RMT held out for more.
Rail workers should ponder on the recent signallers' strike in Scotland over the 35-hour week. The signallers, RMT members, took action, which was partially undermined by managers being brought in from other areas. Would this weakening have been so effective if signallers and drivers were in the same union? What if the signallers had established picket lines asking their brother and sister drivers not to cross?
Now RMT has learnt that rail infrastructure for the London Olympics is to be at least partly Driver Only Operation, ie there will be no guards, meaning fewer job opportunities as well as a worse service for passengers.
In the mess rooms drivers, guards and other staff rely upon each other to get our jobs done safely and generally get on well. There is however a history of mistrust at the top levels of the unions. It would be a mistake to ignore the significant obstacles to unity.
Some representatives in both ASLEF and RMT have a history of blaming the other union. There is currently little prospect of ASLEF members simply deciding to change union. Even if there were one union, drivers would most likely insist on controlling issues concerning drivers' jobs, pay, conditions and disputes for themselves.
This is not the way the RMT currently works, where the leadership is in the hands of a General Grades committee. It is also unclear how many, if any, TSSA members could be won to one united rail union.
Nevertheless, railworkers can see that at a time of generally larger unions and with the financial pressures unions face there is a case for fewer, more effective unions, with less duplication of headquarters and full-time officials than we have now.
Both the RMT and ASLEF stand on the left of the labour movement. There is an industrial and political case for a campaign to convince railworkers that a single rail trade union pursuing policies such as rail nationalisation, repeal of the anti-trade union laws, opposition to imperialist war, and defence of public services offers a means to defend our interests and those of the wider working class.
In The Socialist 10 May 2007:
Socialist Party election analysis
Campaign for a New Workers Party
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party workplace news