Tories war on the RMT

by Daphne Liddle

THE IRON hand of the new Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, emerged from the shadows last week. Southern Rail has threatened to sack all its train guards unless they signed a new contract downgrading their role and paving the way for its abolition, while Grayling launched an attack on the RMT transport union in a speech at the Tory party conference in Birmingham.

The franchise for Southern Rail is run by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). Passengers there have faced months of disruption as GTR cancelled thousands of trains over the summer period. They blamed the union for this saying the cancellations were an anticipation of continuing strikes against the cutting of qualified guards.

Most passengers were not fooled by this and are supportive of the rail workers. They have organised themselves to take legal action against Southern Rail, citing lost jobs and broken marriages caused by the appalling and unpredictable service.

Recently the Government announced an extra £20 million in investment (bringing the total to £42 million) for Southern Rail — a couple of days before GTR post record profits and dividends for its shareholders.

Grayling used his speech to paint a fairy tale picture of all the technological advances and improvements that the Tory government, in collaboration with the privatised train companies.

As most passengers well know, these “improvements” have been about cutting services, doing away with buffet cars, removing station and ticket office staff and fighting an almighty and lengthy battle with the rail union to remove qualified train guards from trains.

not safe

The Government is behind this move to remove train guards, thereby cutting costs. But the unions and organised passenger groups insist that trains without guards are not safe.

Qualified guards know the rail network and who to contact in the event of an emergency; they can prevent dangerous levels of overcrowding and deal with incidents between passengers, assaults and pickpockets. They can enforce no smoking and no alcohol. And above all they are necessary to help people with disabilities on and off trains. There is no other help for people in need at many stations that are now unstaffed during most of the day.

If there is an accident the guard can guide passengers to leave the train safely. In some accidents it is the driver who becomes the first casualty; without a guard the passengers would have no help at all.

In his speech in Birmingham on Monday, Grayling said: “A small hard-core of trade union leaders have been misleading their members and calling them out on strike. They don’t want the modernisation that the network so desperately needs.

“People who work on our railways know what’s best for passengers; the minority of union militants do not. They want to re-nationalise our railways. And it’s no surprise that the Labour Party backs the call of their union paymasters.”

On the same day Southern Rail placed double page spreads in the Metro and Evening Standard calling on passengers to “strike back” at striking rail workers — suggesting attacking rail workers on social media like Twitter and Facebook.

This backfired as dozens of passengers posted messages criticising Southern Rail’s awful performance. One passenger wrote: “It’s a nightmare using Southern I can’t imagine the shambles of being employed by them. Solidarity with RMT union!”

But some passengers took the message as encouragement to assault train staff and Southern Rail was forced to withdraw the adverts.

GTR’s chief executive, Charles Horton, wrote to Mick Cash, the RMT general secretary, on Monday, calling the dispute “pointless” and putting a deadline on an eight-point offer first issued by the company in August. He has offered all conductors on the franchise a £2,000 bonus if the changes to their role are agreed, but warned that the company could claw this back if the union continued to strike.

Mick Cash replied saying the RMT would not be “caving in” to Southern’s demands. “RMT is making it clear this morning that jobs, safety and access on Southern rail services are not for sale for £2,000,” he said.

A similar dispute with Scottish rail operator ScotRail had been solved by a deal guaranteeing a second staff member on all services, he said.

“The union is ready for talks and has been throughout ... Despite the Southern spin, this dispute is not solely about the doors, it is about giving passengers that safety guarantee that goes with the second member of staff on the train,” Cash said. It seems Grayling sees himself as a new Margaret Thatcher and is set upon trying to destroy the rail unions as she did the miners.