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This is building up to an almighty tussle: three unions against the government. Let us hope Southern has a plan going forward?

 

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I wrote in the last issue (PT140) that Brighton would freeze over before transport secretary Chris Grayling would cave in to the RMT union. Plans to extend driver-only operation on Southern Railway would not, I thought, be abandoned. Nonetheless, it is building up to an almighty tussle – and a ghastly time for passengers whose lives and jobs will be disrupted or ruined – with all three unions determined to oppose what is ultimately government policy on DOO and ticket office closures.

Last week’s talks at ACAS between the company and the RMT over DOO fell through. Southern issued a statement that it “vows to move forward with modernisation plans as RMT talks end without agreement” and the RMT is “considering the next move”.

Hard to believe the RMT will back down. More likely they are trying to talk to ASLEF to see what the drivers will do.

If one dispute was not enough, the RMT has announced a 70% majority in a ballot for strike action over ticket office closures.

The TSSA is also threatening strikes over ticket office closures with their ballot closing on August 25 and says “any action in September will be coordinated with our sister unions to maximise impact”.

ASLEF has their own ballot for strike action: a ballot about rostering on Southern and Gatwick Express to close on August 31.

All three unions are gearing up for a fight with the company, and therefore with the government, which is behind these issues.

I have spoken to a few people and it is very difficult to see how the government could back down. This is not like a pay dispute where you can give a little for a deal. You either implement DOO or you do not. You either close the ticket offices – and we are only talking of closing or restricting the hours of some – or you do not. To give in on DOO would reverberate on four or five other TOCs who have DOO obligations or plans in their franchise agreements.

The government can’t give in, it seems to me.

So what is the unions’ game plan? They might think the government will be forced to back down in the face of massive passenger disruption and protests from local Tory MPs. They might want to destroy the company and hasten rail renationalisation. They might be making a Corbynesque protest at the whole market economy. Or all three.

They understand quite well the tide of history and technology. In their writing, there is plenty talk of deskilling. They know perfectly well that technology has deskilled their particular job from what it was 70 years ago and that their industrial muscle is under threat.

But they, the RMT in particular, above all want to be seen as a fighting union. And do they fight!

There is a list on their website of ballots. Here is the number of ballots they have run in the last few years…

2016: 31 (to date)

2015: 78

2014: 64

2013: 26

2012: 8  (a miscount?)

In retrospect, Bob Crow, the RMT’s previous general secretary, who died in March 2014, seems to have been a virtual pacifist. The trick, of course, and Bob was rather good at this, is to get your way without having to resort to ballots, let alone strikes. You need to harvest the golden eggs without killing the goose. For all his bluster, Bob actually closed parts of the railway on very rare occasions.

I don’t actually think that the ramp up in ballots in 2014 and 2015 to a huge 78 is down to Mike Cash, who was elected general secretary in September 2014. There just seems to have been a growing militancy amongst the transport unions. Perhaps the same mood which gave us Jeremy Corbyn.

The substantive issues – DOO and ticket office closures – are hardly new. DOO has been talked about often enough. Ticket office closures less so, but Transport for London has closed most ticket offices on the underground – aided by the excellent Oyster card – and is pushing through a programme called ‘Fit for the Future – Stations’.

But, back to the current DOO dispute on Southern: The company had previously said it would introduce DOO in phases from August 21, this Sunday. This seems to have slipped. Initially, I am told, all the company will do is put revenue protection officers on existing DOO trains with the role of on-train supervisors.

I am not sure what this achieves. Maybe it is the first step in a carefully thought out plan; but sometime soon the company will have to press the button and say “the following trains will be DOO as from …” Let us hope this will be in the next couple of weeks, before the holiday season ends and the trains start getting busy again.

Let us hope also that the company has some kind of agreement with ASLEF. The trains have the equipment for DOO, but the drivers have to operate it.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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