After nearly 50 days of strikes, Northern guards have forced their employer, Arriva Rail North (ARN), to scrap a plan to impose "Driver Only Operation" (DOO). ARN has instead committed to maintain a conductor on every Northern train, including on services using new or newly modified rolling stock.
This is a massive victory for Northern workers, who have won a prolonged war of attrition with a previously intransigent employer, backed up by a Tory government determined not to cave into union pressure. If the victory is consolidated it could be one of the biggest wins for the labour movement in Britain for some time.
The strikes have forced a shift in position not only from ARN, but from the Department for Transport too, which has agreed to further fund the franchise and to alter the requirements laid out in the franchise specification document.
Brendan Barber, the former head of the TUC who now chairs conciliation service Acas, confirmed ARN’s climb-down in a letter to the RMT, in which he invited the union to further mediated talks with ARN on the basis of their commitment to retain a conductor on all services.
The discussions that will now take place to agree a method of working trains in future will still need to be approached with care by the union, although they can now negotiate from a much stronger position.
New technology is still going to be introduced, and "other relevant stakeholders" will still be involved with the negotiations. ARN are highly likely to want to transfer as much of the current guard/conductor's job as possible over to the driver, and will want to try to bribe drivers' union Aslef to help them.
RMT must stay on its guard until they have an acceptable settlement in black and white, and refuse to tolerate any attempts by the employer to negotiate with Aslef behind their backs.
Workers must also resist pressure, for example from moderate elements within unions and the Labour Party, to take the threat of further strikes off the table or to wind down disputes elsewhere. Worryingly, the RMT press release announcing the win reserved special praise for Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, the Labour mayors of Greater Manchester and Merseyside respectively. In reality their role has been inconsistent at best, mainly centring around attempts to broker a fudged compromise rather than throwing their weight and the weight of their offices fully behind the workers and their strikes.
The Northern victory should also serve to revive action on Merseyrail, where the RMT has been tied up in slow-moving negotiations. The RMT branches organising Merseyrail workers have passed policies calling for a return to industrial action, and guards’ strength on Merseyrail is bolstered by the fact that it is the only train company where they can rely on the solidarity of large numbers of Aslef drivers.
Further strikes on Merseyrail and South Western, where RMT guards recently voted by a resounding 84% for further strikes, in a new ballot forced on them by the stipulations of the anti-union laws, could see the momentum of the Northern victory translated into wider gains. More widely, the victory on Northern should give organised workers not just in the rail industry but across the country confidence and hope.
It shows what can be achieved by determined, sustained strikes, and by knowing what your red lines are in any negotiations and sticking to them. When the negotiations are completed there will be more to say about the lesson we can draw from this long dispute, but for now we should celebrate a big step forward.