Over 2,000 rail workers brought services across the north of England and Scotland to a halt last week as they struck over pay. 'This is a demonstration of the power of rail workers to hit back, not least over privatisation,' one picket in the RMT union in Newcastle told Socialist Worker.
Drivers on ScotRail, which runs most routes in Scotland, struck for 24 hours on Friday. Not one train ran. Guards, station staff and clerical grades on Arriva Trains Northern, which covers much of the north of England, struck on Friday and Saturday.
The action was even more hard hitting than previous 48-hour strikes by guards, which halted over 90 percent of services.
The strikes came 24 hours after tube drivers in London inflicted a major defeat on management in the run-up to privatisation. They won a 5.7 percent pay increase and left the anti-union press moaning about London Underground management 'capitulating' to the threat of strikes which had been called for this week.
That victory, and the solid strikes on Arriva and ScotRail are part of a wider mood among rail workers to hit back at glaring inequalities over pay, which are one result of privatisation. ScotRail drivers were set to strike again on Wednesday of this week, and have called further strikes for the rest of this month. Arriva workers were planning this week to escalate their action. Results of ballots for strike action over pay on Silverlink Trains and the Docklands Light Railway in London are due next week.
There was a jubilant spirit of unity on picket lines last week. Michael Thompson, an RMT union rep for station staff on Arriva, told Socialist Worker on a 90-strong picket line in Newcastle: 'People have just had enough. The guards have been taking strike action. Now station staff are joining them after a 232 to 18 vote. The feeling is that we are going from strength to strength. Pay is clearly the big issue. And it is taking off among other workers-elsewhere on the rail, in the hospitals, in the schools in London, at Longbridge car plant, in the councils. It's not just pay. We are not treated with respect. And now I think things are starting to turn. We've had five years of New Labour and they have done nothing for us. People realise that. That's why we are getting so much public support.'
Paul McGrath, an executive member of the TSSA union, was also on the Newcastle picket line. He said, 'This is the first strike by TSSA members for 27 years. That should send a signal to the public. This union does not take action lightly. I am extremely pleased that TSSA members on Arriva are standing alongside their colleagues in the RMT union. We need to build on that unity. It is what trade unionism is all about.'
Two Arriva drivers in the Aslef union, which is not part of the strike action, came up to the picket line to hand out tea and coffee. 'We got a pay rise off Arriva,' said one. 'They had to give it because of the shortage of drivers. But if it is good enough for us, it is good enough for the other grades. The other drivers think that. There should be no divisions between the workforce.'
There were big pickets elsewhere on Arriva, with 40, including TSSA members, in Skipton, North Yorkshire.
'There were also good pickets outside depots in Scotland,' a striking ScotRail driver from Edinburgh told Socialist Worker. 'There were 25 outside the Edinburgh depot. It's the basic sense of unfairness that is fuelling this. There is also the fact that the media are repeating management's lies but we are banned by the company from speaking out. National Express has four other rail franchises in addition to ScotRail. We are at the bottom of the heap and are pushing for parity with other drivers. Privatisation has meant there is a big pot of money in the middle, with all the companies trying to grab it. That's creating the chaos. There is a strong feeling now that we need a return to national pay bargaining, pulling everyone up rather than being pitted against one another.'
The TSSA union joined the RMT and Aslef last week in calling for a return to national pay bargaining. That demand can unite rail workers in every grade and union. It would also signal a dispute with each of the 25 train operating companies, and would be a powerful challenge to privatisation.
FOR ONCE the London Evening Standard headline got it right. 'Tube Strikes Called Off As LU Management Cave In' was how London's Tory tabloid reported the deal made on tube drivers' pay.
The deal came after huge yes votes for strikes by both RMT and Aslef rail union members, and a planned 48-hour strike on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. The deal gives drivers an extra 5.7 percent pay rise on top of the 4 percent already agreed for 2001. Our 2002 pay claim is yet to come.
Although there are some minor productivity strings, there is no doubt that this is a huge victory for all underground workers. The deal will also give a right to flexible working for people with domestic or caring responsibilities. Although this battle has been won, there are many more to come.
With PPP just around the corner, we need to maintain the solidarity and unity between Aslef and RMT union members to protect safety and working conditions.
FINN BRENNAN, Aslef trains council member (personal capacity)
Scotrail Drivers have been refusing to work their rest days since the start of this year. One result of that has been that drivers are less stressed and there have been no 'signals passed at danger', where trains pass stop signals.
ScotRail management, however, wants to push drivers harder and harder. Its 'offer' to end the dispute last week included increasing the working week by three hours and introducing flexible shift patterns. This would leave drivers at the company's beck and call. It also wanted to cut five days holiday.
'That has got people even more angry,' says a ScotRail driver from Glasgow. 'It explains why there is 100 percent support for this action among all drivers' Arriva management is also showing how vindictive it can be. It has cancelled time off for union reps attending TUC courses, and for workers to go to a black and ethnic minorities meeting called by their RMT union.
New Labour ministers ordered London Underground management to cave in to the drivers last week. The government was scared that a tube strike could add to a generalised wave of action on the railways, particularly because transport secretary Stephen Byers is vulnerable.
At the same time it is hoping to ride out the strikes that are taking place. Its Strategic Rail Authority has been telling ScotRail and Arriva management to stand firm. South West Trains management did succeed in intimidating workers from taking strike action.
There are now talks on SWT over pay, but talks will not overturn management's victimisation of Greg Tucker and other union activists at the company. Rail and tube workers are increasingly realising that united, hard-hitting action is the way to win.
The call for national pay bargaining is popular, and has to become something taken up and fought for seriously for every group of rail workers. That means a national dispute, no matter how it is balloted for. Escalated action by those sections that have already voted for strikes can win quickly and encourage others.