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Aslef is defying the Strikes Act

MICK WHELAN, general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers’ union, writes for the Morning Star on the eve of his union’s annual conference in Manchester from Monday 20 to Friday May 24

STRIKES, they say, don’t work. Well, that’s what the Tory government and papers such as the Sun, Daily Mail, and Daily Telegraph would like you to believe. Of course it is. Because the dirty little truth — and it is the truth — is that strikes do work. They always have. They always will. That’s why employers and the Tory governments that always stand behind the bosses don’t like them.
 
Reflect, for a moment, on our current dispute with 16 train operating companies which began back in June 2022 when we first balloted our members for industrial action because they hadn’t had a pay rise since April 2019.
 
It was only six and a half months later — and, more pertinently, after six one-day strikes — that the train companies, in the form of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), an organisation that lobbies the government on behalf of some, but not all, of the passenger and freight companies in England, Scotland, and Wales, finally made us an offer.
 
The Secretary of State for Transport — Grant Shapps, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, and Mark Harper have all walked through the revolving turnstile on the door at the DfT in the last two years — and the Rail Minister — whether Wendy Morton, Kevin Foster, or Huw Merriman — kept parroting the party line that “Aslef should come to the table.”

Well, we did. But the table was bare. The companies were putting nothing on the table until we showed our collective determination to win a pay rise by going on strike.
 
It’s that solidarity — collective action — which employers hate. At heart, many bosses are like Victorian mill owners: they want to hire and fire as they see fit. They love the idea of the foreman walking along a 19th-century wharf first thing in the morning saying: “You, you, and you are hired. The rest of you can go home.”
 
They don’t like the “burden” — as they see it, and say it, but never sort it — of employing men and women. Of paying proper wages. Taxes. National Insurance and pensions.

That’s why they love the gig economy, false self-employment, and zero-hours contracts which the labour movement — and the Labour Party in its New Deal for Working People — will bring in legislation to ban. Bosses often claim that “zero-hours contracts offer workers flexibility.” But not decent terms and conditions, proper employment rights, or secure jobs.
 
And what they really, really, really don’t like is when workers come together, in a trade union, to act collectively. They haven’t liked it since the Tolpuddle Martyrs, in 1834, had the temerity to form a trade union and ask for proper wages when employers were slashing wages in Dorset to poverty levels and leaving agricultural workers and their families to starve. And that’s why they sentenced six workers to transportation.
 
Because our strikes have been successful in bringing the railway network in this country to a standstill the government rushed through its Minimum Service Levels Act at the end of last year.
 
This Act, initially proposed by Grant Shapps, had, and has, nothing to do with providing a minimum service to the public — specifically, passengers, on the railway — and everything to do with providing maximum problems for trade unions. Threatening us with fines if we put a foot wrong and, fundamentally, trying to undermine the effectiveness of industrial action and our ability to protect members.
 
It was the success of Aslef’s strikes after we first walked out in July 2022 which led the Tory government to bring in this law in an effort to neutralise us in our fight for fair pay.
 
That’s why we fought so hard — and, so far, so successfully — against the implementation of the Act. When one operator said it intended to issue work notices to our members, for the one day we were due to go on strike, we immediately put on another five days of strikes — more industrial action, as we had promised, to get the same effect — and LNER saw sense and promptly backed down.
 
Aslef has been proud to stand with colleagues and comrades in what the Morning Star, at a very lively public meeting on Thursday March 7, called “defiance not compliance.” Nobody wanted to be first in the firing line, but it fell to us, and we were pleased to stand up, in solidarity with our friends in the Labour Party, labour movement, and the TUC, against this pernicious piece of spiteful legislation.
 
We did it for passengers, as well as for staff; we did it for everyone who works and travels on our railways. And we did it for every worker here in Britain. Because we don’t believe in forced labour. We believe in the right to strike. And we know — as this Tory government knows — that strikes are effective.
 
Earlier this month, the RDG reached out to us for “talks about talks” to try to resolve our pay dispute with 16 train companies. They would not have done that if we had not taken industrial action. Yes, that’s right. Strikes work.

Mick Whelan has spent 40 years on the railway, and 40 years as an active trade unionist. He was elected general secretary of Aslef in 2011, became chair of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, now Labour Unions, in 2016, and in 2017 was elected to the Labour Party NEC.

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