Workers at Southern struck again on 21 June in their dispute against “Driver Only Operation” (DOO). One of the strikers spoke to rank-and-file railworkers’ bulletin Off The Rails.
The strike is about keeping the role of the guard (conductor) on the train. People think conductors just sell tickets, but we have safety responsibilities. For example, when a train is in a platform, it’s up to us to close the doors and make sure people don’t get trapped. If I close the doors and give the driver the “tip” to go and the signal is red and the train moves, then the responsibility is on the guard.
We also assist visually impaired people on and off the train safely. We are safety critical. Every year we must sit an exam; if we don’t pass, they withdraw our licence. Southern wants to take away the safety critical element of our job and run trains under “Driver Only Operation” (DOO).
DOO would put all the guards’ safety responsibilities onto the drivers, and they have enough to do already. This is also bad for passengers. Southern has announced that, once it has removed guards, people with a disability who require assistance must give 48 hours’ notice before they can travel.
Southern wants to implement its plans by 20 August. Existing guards would have to sign a new contract. We currently work 35 hours a week. Managers brought new draft rosters to show us, which showed us working 38.5 hours. We would be going backwards. We used to work a 40 hour week and the union fought to bring it down to 35. Most importantly, because we wouldn’t be classed as “safety critical” anymore, we would lose our right to the guaranteed legal minimum of 12 hours’ rest between shifts, so we could finish at midnight and find ourselves back at work at 8 am the following day. During service disruptions, we would be expected to work 90 minutes extra.
The RMT industrial action amongst guards has been very solid. Everyone feels so angry that we are not valued. Although Southern sent us letters to warn us that we would lose 48 hours’ money for a 24 hour strike, people still walked out. We’ve had three strikes so far, most recently on 21 June.
Support is great in all depots. Even at Selhurst, which will be retained as a conductor depot, guards walked out because they realise it won’t be long before it hits them as well. Managers are announcing that trains are cancelled because staff have gone sick. They are trying to turn passengers against us. The real reason for cancellations is that most depots are understaffed.
Guards have been helping to keep trains running by working rest days. But all good will from the staff has gone. Yesterday, I said I wouldn’t work beyond my time, so a few trains were cancelled. Southern is not showing signs of backing down — it just wants the union to cave.
Aslef balloted drivers after asking Southern how far it plans to extend DOO and the company refused to say. The ballot result was good. But the employers took Aslef to court and got an injunction to prevent drivers from taking the industrial action that they had voted for. Now RMT guards are taking our next strike action on our own when we had hoped to be striking alongside the drivers. But support from the drivers is strong.
At Victoria, drivers have raised money to support the guards to keep going out on strike. We look after each other in the depot. We need a coordinated national strike to defeat DOO. ScotRail guards are the latest to strike. Guards on Merseyrail are in the same predicament: the company wants to get rid of guards and use them as ticket inspectors.
On Northern Rail, the RMT has run a great public campaign, “Keep the Guard on the Train”. The petition in support of keeping guards already has 11,000 signatures. In terms of a political campaign, there is an Early Day Motion in Parliament. We’ve had no Labour Party support on our strike days. Only the Green Party came down to our picket line. Some of my colleagues emailed Sadiq Khan saying “we will be voting for you as London Mayor if you promise to retain us”. He said “yes”. TfL is taking over the routes within London that are already DOO. We will have to pressure him to put guards on those routes.
Rail strikes spread to Scotland
ScotRail workers struck four times in a week, in the latest of a series of developing disputes against “Driver Only Operation” (DOO). They struck on 21, 23, 25, and 26 June, as part of a programme of strikes which also includes walkouts on 3, 10, and 17 July.
There were several reported incidents of safety regulations being breached, as unqualified managers were used to cover the work of striking guards. A document accidentally leaked by ScotRail management stated that developing a “greater resilience to industrial action” was a motivating factor in their attempt to extend DOO.
The RMT union, which organises ScotRail workers, accused the company of union busting. An RMT statement said: “These documents, issued in error by the company, expose a hidden agenda of union busting, job cuts and attacks on safety that RMT always said was at the heart of this dispute.
“They blow apart the company spin that there is no threat and that our action is premature.”
UCU strikes target open days
The UCU union’s dispute over pay and conditions in Higher Education is continuing over the summer with a wave of rolling strikes across universities. Protests and strikes are being timed to disrupt university open days.
The union is also organising an assessment boycott to start in the Autumn. External examiners are resigning their positions on exam boards. So far strikes have happened at University of Liverpool, Warwick, Chester, Leeds, Sheffield, Reading, Wolverhampton, and Oxford, and various universities in London. UCU says that since 2010 the amount spent on staff by universities as a percentage of total income has dropped by 3%. However the total of cash in reserves has rocketed by 72% to over £21bn.
Tube unions consider further strikes
RMT’s National Executive Committee has announced that it is “preparing a ballot matrix” of its members working on London Underground stations, signalling a possible return to industrial action against job cuts.
Several of RMT’s Tube branches had passed resolutions calling for renewed strikes against the impact of “Fit for the Future: Stations”, a programme of cuts which has seen nearly 1,000 frontline posts axed, and forced regrading for all station staff and mass displacements.
A London Underground worker and RMT rep told Solidarity: “This announcement is welcome, and needs to be acted on as soon as possible. Many of us felt that our previous dispute over ‘Fit for the Future’ was settled too early.
“Declaring a new dispute and building for renewed action could turn the anger station workers feel about the cuts and their consequences into real resistance.”
Leon Brumant remembered
The RMT London Transport Regional Council and RMT Bakerloo Line branch held an event on 23 June to commemorate the life of Leon Brumant, the Tube worker, socialist, RMT rep, and anti-racist activist who died on 22 April. The event heard speeches from leading RMT activists and officials, including National President Sean Hoyle and London Transport Regional Organiser John Leach.
Comrades of Leon from beyond the union also attended, along with his mother, sister, and other members of his family. Many of the speeches and contributions noted Leon’s struggles with depression, and emphasised the need for the RMT and wider labour movement to do more around issues of mental health.
• To read our obituary for Leon, see here