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Aslef members reject Southern deal - now for coordinated action with the RMT to fight to win
Rob Williams, Socialist Party industrial organiser
Train drivers in the trade union Aslef have delivered a tremendous answer of working-class solidarity that will astound Southern Rail management and the Tory government but also their own union leadership and that of the TUC. Despite the recommendation by Aslef leaders to accept the deal to end their dispute, drivers have rejected it by 54%-46% after a 72% turnout.
When the massive propaganda from the right-wing media is taken into account, as well as the fact that the talks were brokered by the TUC, this is welcome and decisive defiance to driver only operations (DOO). It also amounts to a censure to the Aslef leadership for being party to talks without the RMT rail union, whose guards and station staff have taken 28 days of strike action in a dispute that is a blatant attack on one of the most militant unions in the country.
The strike action by both unions had put management on the rack and should have been the basis for an agreement that threw out DOO, rather than a 'deal' that had so many holes in. It would have put drivers in the firing line in any future accidents and would have effectively imposed a settlement on the RMT, without a seat at the real talks.
The result is a vindication of the approach of the RMT, which correctly argued for joint talks, first at Acas and then at the TUC. But the TUC leadership have played a shameful role and should account for their actions at the next TUC general council and to an even a bigger audience. They are already sitting on a resolution that was moved by the RMT at last September's TUC congress to call a special conference against the Trade Union Act, which comes into operation on 1 March. It will include new undemocratic ballot thresholds that would mean rail workers face huge obstacles in getting legal strikes.
But this vote by Aslef members shows once and for all that if workers act together, nothing is insurmountable.
Aslef leader Mick Whelan has said: "We understand and support the decision arrived at democratically by our members and will now work to deliver a resolution in line with their expectations." But Aslef members will now expect immediate talks with the RMT to discuss coordinated action and no separate talks. RMT members have called a 24-hour strike on 22 February. If the rail unions act together, they can secure a famous victory for themselves and a safe service for the travelling public.
An Aslef member writes:
Aslef members around the country will be celebrating the decision of members employed by Southern to reject the deal over Driver Only Operation.
Many issues are raised in this dispute. The basis of opposing DOO is that train drivers already have enough to do.
We are constantly looking at safe working, speed, track conditions, obstacles on the track, low adhesion, where to shut off power, where to apply the brake, being alert to track workers, areas of potential trespass and suicide risk, indications of train faults and reporting these, customer safety approaching stations, contacting the signaller and the guard.
Then when a train terminates and we change ends for the return journey, we respond to questions, speak to platform staff, check that we have not breached safety rules when running late. That is enough, we neither need nor want to do the work of other grades.
Southern challenged all four ballots held by Aslef in this dispute, at the High Court. In the first three cases Southern won.
We know that their lawyers were given carte blanche to seek ways to undermine the dispute. Twenty lawyers worked full-time to frustrate our democratic vote. The legal bill passed to Aslef is over £600,000.
In the fourth case, Southern lost, they had apparently argued that a strike would breach freedom of movement rules under the European Union. They said this applied because they are partly French-owned.
As an Aslef member who recognises that unity among railworkers is vital to defeat the bosses' plans, I condemn the actions of the TUC leadership. It has gone along with the managements' divide and rule approach. Those who claim to be talking on our behalf must be accountable to us. The TUC General Secretary is not.
I heard a Tory MP on the radio suggesting the deal be tweaked to resolve the dispute. There can be no tweaking of Aslef policy which is abundantly clear - no extension of DOO. This dispute must be settled on that basis.
Aslef members know that if we lose on Southern, success elsewhere will be more difficult, there are similar battles coming elsewhere. With a determined fight, we will win.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 16 February 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.