MICK CASH urges trade unionists to continue their support for RMT workers
DELEGATES and visitors to the TUC Congress in Brighton this week are likely to have travelled down to the coast on the shambolic train services operated by Govia Thameslink Railways (GTR).
Let me make this clear from the outset: RMT wholly understands and shares the frustration and anger of passengers with the ongoing chaos at Southern Rail and the impact it is having on a daily basis.
Morning Star readers will be well aware that the shocking level of service delivery predates any action by RMT members or our colleagues in Aslef.
The operation has lurched from crisis to crisis from the day that GTR took over the management contract.
GTR is pretty much a unique contract model on Britain’s fragmented railways.
It’s not a franchise. The company does not take the fare box, it takes no financial risk and it gets paid by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and his officials regardless of how it performs due to a contract that is so shot full of holes and get-out clauses it defies all logic.
As a result, when performance has dropped through the floor, even on the government’s own indicators, the company has been paid up and cheered on by ministers and their officials while commuters have been left to stare at departure boards shot through with the red lights of delays and cancellations. This is important background to the guards’ dispute as it shows that GTR/Southern is a highly politicised operation with the government itself calling the shots.
When we were first confronted with the plans to expand driver-only operation and the watering down and removal of the guards, we sought to negotiate a settlement.
The idea that RMT was locked in, and that the issue was all about who opens and closes the doors, was blown away when we negotiated a settlement in an almost identical dispute with the private operator on Scotrail that altered some of the existing staff functions while protecting safety at the crucial passenger/train interface and disabled access.
We said at the time, if it’s good enough for Scotland then it’s good enough for southern England, but every effort we made to negotiate an agreement on similar lines was blocked off, with Southern Rail even going as far as to say that there was no similarity between the two parts of Britain.
It was that sheer intransigence that led us to take industrial action last April. We had no choice. But still we sought to reach agreement, only to be given the runaround every time we tried to get the talks process going.
Southern then launched its ill-fated “Strike Back” campaign which back- fi red big time when passengers made it clear that they valued their rail staff, didn’t want to “strike back” at them and wanted the company to negotiate a settlement.
RMT has continued throughout the last 17 months to push for talks and an agreement. In July we offered to trial a new proposal based on an “accessibility guarantee” which would ensure that there was a guard or an on-board supervisor on every train to ensure that the company complied with disability access legislation.
Again, we were snubbed with the company saying that it would not move an inch from its plans.
Throughout, social media has been packed with horror stories about passengers who have been badly let down by Southern’s new arrangements.
Far from just a handful of trains running without a second person as the company promised, we now know that they are looking at 8,000 services a year with solely a driver on board.
RMT has always said that if there isn’t a guard or on-board supervisor guarantee, then over time more and more trains will end up with only a driver to manage accessibility issues, security and a whole raft of safety critical functions.
On a failing service like Southern, where overcrowding and unreliability are rife, we have warned that this is a recipe for disaster.
Following the general election, and the reappointment of Grayling as Transport Secretary, RMT made yet another push for talks.
This time, Grayling agreed to meet us and we took up that offer. For the first time we had a chance to set out our case to the minister holding the GTR contract.
It was only through that pressure that we were able to secure another face-to-face with Southern but once again that process stalled.
But we have not left it there. It is crystal clear to us that we now need talks involving all parties with a direct interest.
Those roundtable discussions should include the unions, the Department for Transport and the company.
It is surely common sense to have everyone who is in a position to sign off a settlement in the same room, at the same time and without any preconditions?
GTR has shown no interest in roundtable talks but the union will meet again with Grayling to press him to make it happen.
RMT firmly believes that a solution to the Southern Rail dispute, and a longer-term solution to the structural problems of the whole GTR lash-up, is still achievable.
The dispute has never been about money for our members, it has been about protecting a safe and accessible railways for the communities that they serve and live in.
The same principles apply to our disputes on Northern, South Western, Greater Anglia and Merseyrail.
Southern may be the longest dispute over rail safety but the toxic combination of government anti-union policy and rank profiteering reaches out across our rammed-out and dangerous railways.
I would urge all trade union colleagues to continue and to step up their fantastic support for RMT members across the country fighting to put rail safety and access before private profits.
The fight to defend the guards is in the front line of that battle. With your solidarity and support it is a battle we will win.