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Posted on 1 September 2017 at 12:07 GMT

Merseyrail strike over safety: Labour mayor and councillors must reverse their decision

Merseyrail picket line, photo by RMT

Merseyrail picket line, photo by RMT   (Click to enlarge)

Hugh Caffrey

Another rock-solid strike marked the first of three more days' industrial action by the RMT trade union on Merseyrail, fighting to keep the guards on the trains.

Yet again, public support for the strike is overwhelming and train drivers in the rail union Aslef refused to cross the RMT's picket lines.

Socialist Party campaign stalls across Merseyside in support of the guards have continued to receive, and encourage, backing from the great majority of the public for the guards.

The drivers themselves are opposed to so-called Driver-Only Operation for the obvious reason that they want to be concentrating on driving the train. When I got to the picket line, two Aslef members were explaining that a driver elsewhere in the country, operating a driver-only train, had been blamed for an accident on that train. In other words, management remove the guards who help to prevent/mitigate accidents and then blame drivers for the consequences.

Aslef members must urgently compel their national leadership to work with the RMT to defend the guards on Merseyrail and elsewhere. The profiteering lunacy of driver-only operation is exceeded only by what the bosses intend to follow it - driver-less trains run by computers. New technology is being used merely as an excuse for old-fashioned cost-cutting at the expense of workers' wages and jobs, and ultimately at the expense of the public.

The drivers are next for the chop, and the current short-term outlook of the Aslef leadership is preparing a defeat for the Aslef membership. The driver-only trains on Merseyrail cost 700 million for the lifetime of the contract and then the trains will be obsolete when the contract expires. The whole exercise will be gone through again then, if not before, to remove safety-critical staff - be they guards or drivers - in the pursuit of greater profits.

Labour complicity

Driver-only operation is a policy enthusiastically pushed by the Tories and the rail employers. On Merseyside however, where Tories are a very rare animal, the removal of the guards is being driven by the Labour Party. Labour metro-mayor Steve Rotheram is overseeing the removal of the guards, implemented by the city region's Transport Committee which overwhelmingly is made up of Labour councillors.

The dispute could be resolved by Rotheram stepping in or by the councillors reversing their decision. But Rotheram and the councillors are quite clearly totally determined to press ahead with this Tory policy.

RMT general secretary Mick earlier this week said:

"RMT is bitterly disappointed that our efforts to make progress towards a resolution of the Merseyrail guards' and safety dispute have been blocked off once again and as a result the action on Friday, Sunday and Monday goes ahead as planned.

"It was made clear to us that the reason for axing the safety-critical guards on Merseyrail trains is entirely cash led. At a time when this company is trousering 16 million in profits from passengers on Merseyside it is disgraceful that they cannot find the 5 million that it would cost to keep the guards on the trains, keep the public safe and maintain disabled access to these lifeline services.

"The question that RMT is throwing out to politicians across Merseyside is "Which side are you on?" - the side of the safety-critical guards and the public that they protect or the side of the greedy private train operators who are making a killing at the passengers expense?"

Clearly, Rotheram & Co are on the latter side. This is why the Socialist Party supported the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) standing in the metro-mayor elections in May, to provide a genuinely anti-cuts, pro-guards position. Some criticised TUSC for standing but it has been fully vindicated by these developments, of which we were virtually alone in warning. Numerous guards have told us they voted for TUSC because of this, as did more than a few Labour party members!

RMT members' questions

The determination of Merseyside's relevant Labour representatives to remove the guards shows why RMT activists were and are right to oppose simply affiliating their union to Labour without asking a series of hard questions about what it would mean.

On Merseyside, RMT members would not support it if it meant the RMT having to fund and support Rotheram & Co at the next election. Driver-only operation is opposed by the RMT, by the local public, by Labour's national policy, by Jeremy Corbyn, and the local Labour membership. It shows just how far the transformation of Labour into a democratic, anti-austerity party has yet to go.

The fight to save the guards can be won. The dispute has deliberately been strung out by the Labour politicians and the rail management. What is needed now is a clear strategy to escalate the dispute and pile the pressure on the Labour politicians. A Merseyside Socialist Party leaflet which was well-received by strikers and public alike argues for:

We will continue to discuss this with RMT members locally while mobilising massive support for the strikers.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 1 September 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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