The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
Week commencing 30th August 1985

Threats and intimidation
Knapp accuses British Rail managers over guards’ vote

The rejection of industrial action by over half the guards who voted in last Friday’s ballot should send shock waves throughout the trade union and labour movement.

The guards’ case was absolutely sound on two counts —it put passenger safety before profit, and it defended the right to work.

Why, then, did a majority—albeit a slender 455 votes out of 9,175 votes cast—decide that they would not take the only road which could have brought them victory—industrial action?

At 6 o’clock on Wednesday the National Union of Railwaymen’s general secretary, Jimmy Knapp, visibly disappointed, explained, “There is no doubt that a lot of our members felt intimidated for a number of reasons.

“We live in a climate of 4 million people on the dole, and our members have been threatened on the one hand and been given promises for the future on the other.”

Indeed, in its determination to impose driver-only operation on the NUR, British Rail management had escalated its campaign of bribes, threats and dismissals.

Even The Times (22 August) noted, “British Rail has been intent on keeping pressure on the union, apparently in the hope of provoking outbreaks of industrial action over which the union would have little control but for which it could ultimately be held responsible before the court.”

Dismissal notices were set on the eve of last week‘s ballot to 32 guards on strike at Immingham and one at Llanelli, bringing the total since the dispute began to 247.

The sackings caused another wave of strikes at Paddington, Glasgow, King’s Cross, Swansea and Doncaster, resulting in rail chaos in many areas.

British Rail mailed another batch of letters the day before the ballot—a personal letter to each of its 11,000 guards, guaranteeing their future employment under driver-only operation, but warning them that their jobs would be threatened by industrial action.

There was a heavy turnout as guards throughout Britain voted in last Friday’s ballot to answer the question on the ballot form, “Do you agree to oppose the imposition of driver-only operation by the British Railways Board and to take industrial action, including strike action, if necessary?”

Tory hopes of a victory were lowered by the result of another ballot—87 per cent of NUR members had voted in favour of retaining the union’s political fund.

The media began to speculate on the courses of action open to BR management in the event of an NUR decision not to call an all-out strike immediately, but to call on guards to ban overtime and rest-day working in a bid to bring the management to the negotiating table.

British Rail’s leaked response, clearly dictated from 10 Downing Street, was that it would prefer to see the closure of the entire rail network, with the consequent saving on wages of all staff.

There is no doubt that the Tories had planned a confrontation in the same way as they provoked the miners’ strike. and had prepared alternative means of transport.

Denis Quin, director-general of the Bus and Coach Council, claimed that an extra 10,000 coaches could be put on the road, and some large companies were planning “military-style operations” to bring their staff into London.

In May last year the use of the 38-tonne lorry was legalised as part of the rail-strike preparations and the chairman of the Road Haulage Association says, “We could double or treble the number of lorries on the road”.

The CEGB had built up a 15 million-tonne reserve and increased its use of lorry-delivered coal as part of the Government’s plan to minimise the effect of a strike.

It is clear that forward planning plays a key role in the Tory anti-union strategy, and the lesson for the movement is clear.

When the Tories identify a union target for attack, the trade unions must immediately plan a counter-campaign to ensure union victory.

The railway guards, with the miners’ struggle still fresh in their minds, were not confident that they would receive sufficient backing from other unions and the TUC to win their fight.

But the trade union and labour movement cannot afford to be dispirited by the result of the guards’ ballot.

0n the contrary, it must stiffen our resolve to strengthen the movement, so that whenever a section of workers goes into struggle it can be confident of wide support. That is the essence of working-class unity.