Workers on South Western Railway (SWR) have struck another huge blow against Driver Only Operation, winning an agreement that a safety-critical guard will be retained on all SWR services.
Guards in the RMT had recently returned a resounding 84% majority in favour of further strikes, in a re-ballot forced on them by the restrictions of the anti-union laws. RMT had planned a strike for 22 February, but has now suspended this following SWR’s offer.
The proposed settlement states: 'On the introduction of any new or other modified rolling stock, each passenger train shall operate with a guard with safety critical competencies. Specific Safety Critical competencies shall be agreed by SWR and RMT.' (Read more on the RMT's website here.)
There is still cause for some caution, as SWR may attempt to use ongoing negotiations, no longer under the pressure of imminent strikes, to push for a radical downgrading of those safety-critical tasks. SWR may also try to undermine RMT by holding separate negotiations with drivers’ union Aslef, and cobble together a deal that transfers many guards’ responsibilities to the driver, possibly in exchange for drivers’ salary increases.
Activists in Aslef who do not want their union to be used in this way must stand firm and insist that Aslef must not participate in single-union negotiations on methods of train dispatch. Off the Rails has previously written about the need to stand firm against these potential sabotages, in the context of Northern, here and here.
The proposed SWR deal follows a similar step forward in the fight against DOO on Northern Rail. If consolidated and made concrete, it would be one of the most significant victories for the trade union movement in Britain for many years. The drive to impose DOO ultimately stems from a long-held desire by rail industry bosses to cut costs by reducing wage bills and staffing levels, and to break the power of a relatively well-organised trade union in the process. In this, they have been enthusiastically supported by a virulently anti-union Tory government, which has subsidised train companies to help them absorb the financial impact of industrial action.
Workers in two companies have, through their determination to continue striking and their refusal to give up, defeated their employers and the Department for Transport. This should be a shot in the arm for organised labour throughout the country. In the first instance it should give renewed impetus to the RMT’s campaign on Merseyrail, where the union has been locked in protracted negotiations.
We need continued caution and to cast a critical eye over the detail of any settlement, which should of course be subject to democratic ratification by the affected workers, via their union. This need for caution must not be lost in a blaze of euphoria. Neither, though, should the need for caution stop us justifiably celebrating an all-too-rare and hugely significant win for workers.