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When Southern’s long running dispute with guards is over, it will be important to heal the wounds and get people pulling together

 

Heaven knows what the RMT is up to. Apparently, though I have not seen the letter, they have advised Southern guards to accept the ‘on board supervisor’ role when it begins in January, but told them to go ahead with the strikes this week.

Maybe they are going to keep fighting DOO (driver only operation), even after January, when it will already be in operation. Hard to know; but it does not sound like a wining strategy. More like going down fighting, and go down they will.

I said months ago that it would be grim for passengers but the RMT would lose this fight. It has taken longer than I expected to come to a head; I suppose Southern has needed time to train other staff in the new on board supervisor role, and they certainly have to give 12 weeks notice of a change in the employment terms for the guards. It will now come to a head when the letters to the guards, which have been sent out, take effect on January 1.

This unfortunately gives RMT 12 weeks to make trouble. It will do them no good. The government made DOO a franchise condition and Chris Grayling, the secretary of state for Transport, is not going to give in.

I caught him at a late night fringe event at the Conservative Party conference and asked innocently if it was not time to heed the interests of Southern Rail passengers and give up plans for DOO. Not a bit of it, he said.

“This is about politics,” he said. “It is a bunch of union militants trying to bring the railway to its knees. They want it renationalised. If you gave in to them now, they would just go somewhere else and cause trouble there.”

This is just as I thought. Grayling is not going to give in. Brighton will freeze over before he does.

The offer to guards of £2,000 is a bit of a mystery. It was offered on Monday conditional on the union accepting the DOO change by Thursday. This was never going to happen, as the management will have known, and it is now off the table. Perhaps it was a dry fly cast over the water to excite the fish. This time the fish did not bite. Maybe it will be cast again closer to the January deadline and the fish will bite then. Having talked about a £2,000 offer, I can not see it being withdrawn for ever.

It is easy, standing on the touchline, to criticise players on the field (with reason, if you are a Chelsea season ticket holder). But the Southern management, who have come in for much stick, were given an impossible task: the 12 labours of Hercules, running trains through the London Bridge remodeling, closing the shortfall of drivers they inherited, guards taking sickies, track faults, union militants revelling in every problem – there are at least 12 – and finally, implementing DOO.

Charles Horton (chief executive) and Dyan Crowther (chief operating officer) have done about as well as humanly possible. The one visible thing I would take issue with is the tone when talking about the union. I wrote in July:

My advice: focus on the individuals, the guards themselves. They are not imune to reason or public opinion. It should be possible quietly to promise enough jam to weaken resistance and win peace without losing the main point of DOO.

Your negotiating strategy cannot be wishy-washy. You have to be hard-headed. Use the courts, use offers like the £2,000, but do not be petty. The threat to take parking permits away from striking guards some months ago crossed the line from hard-headed to petty and had to be withdrawn.

And do not act as if you are going to war with the union. Yes, the union is trying to stoke bitterness and antagonism but better, I believe, is to ooze respect, even admiration for it: “They do a great job, a force for good in the community, a sincere interest in safety, but in this instance they are wrong.” Perhaps one could not go that far, the words would stick in the throat, but something like it. Andrew Haines, when he was MD of South West Trains, during the three-week Greg Tucker strike in 2002 struck a good balance and never gave the impression that he was hostile to the union.

What you do not do is put out the ‘Let’s strike back’ rallying cry pictured below.

 

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This message appeared on posters and on the company’s Twitter feed (@SouthernRailUK). It says: “The RMT won’t listen to us, but they may listen to you. Tweet @RMTunion and tell them how you feel, and help us get #SouthernBackOnTrack”.

It had to be withdrawn almost immediately by this email to staff…

Subject: ***Urgent*** Southern RMT Strike Posters – Cancel print job and remove from display

Dear All,

Due to the extremely negative sentiment around the brand it has been decided to cancel this poster campaign.

Could you please ensure that all copies of the below posters are removed from display and destroyed immediately.

Fairly obviously it had backfired. Twitter and Facebook afficionados were having a field day with “Piss off then” being one of the most polite messages (Southern Guards dispute page):

 

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Charles Horton and Dyan Crowther are good people, and this must be hard to take. I see that Dyan is leaving in November to head up HS1 Limited with her position being taken by Nick Brown. He has recently been a very effective managing director at Transport for London in charge of the underground and rail – a big job.

There is a lot of bitterness in the air, stoked up by the RMT which has gone rogue. One recipient of the letters the company has sent out to the guards giving notice of the change in their role – the letter ended one role but offered another – wrote this on Facebook:

My career on the railways will end 31st December 2016

I have just received official notice of termination of my contract of employment with Southern, the end date being the last day of the current year.

Am I unhappy?

Well – in one sense yes. I have good colleagues at Southern. Fellow conductors, drivers, platform and ticket staff, and the immediate middle management I have worked for over the years, who have been admirable and excellent colleagues. I shall miss them.

But Southern itself I regard with almost limitless contempt. A company with no apparent regard whatever for either its staff or its customers.

This is not good.  Probably a very small minority think like this, but not good. In a few months’ time, when this is over and things have a chance to settle down, we may need to try for a new beginning. We will need new faces at the top and you may see more of Nick Brown’s handsome face.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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