After a long period of relative calm, we are seeing again a labour dispute as bitter and futile as the ones fought out in the 1980s


standardCoverage of the 1982 train drivers’ dispute in the The Standard


Disputes over changes to working practices seem to generate extraordinary levels of intransigence quite unjustified by their actual effect on the people involved. No one is forceably made redundant and no one’s pay gets cut or even loses out on a pay rise.

What do they expect governments to do? Staff the railway as it was under Brunel? Yes, legitimate issues must be addressed, but other industries sort these without trench warfare.

I have been reading up on the career of Bob Reid One, the most admired railway manager in recent times, and have come across time and time again during the 1980s strikes by the drivers’ union ASLEF and the National Union of Railwaymen (the NUR, the predecessor to the RMT) aimed at preventing changes to working practices.

Two in particular stand out. One was about driver-only operation, exactly what the present dispute is about, but the most famous was the strike by ASLEF over flexible rostering in 1982.

At that time, drivers and guards, or at least their unions, were clinging onto traditional working practices to preserve, as they saw it, their jobs. Jimmy Knapp, the NUR leader, railed against “jobs gone for good” and that “we are paying for our pay rise with our own jobs”.

ASLEF clung onto a fixed eight-hour roster for drivers and refused the flexible seven to nine-hour rosters wanted by BR. They clung onto the second man, the driver’s assistant, in the driving cab. This was a requirement for some 20% of driving duties: in those days all East Coast Main Line trains were double manned on the grounds that the diagram was over eight hours.

The NUR refused agreement to driver-only operation of passenger trains – which they still do – and, bizarrely, of freight trains, where the second man had absolutely nothing to do. In the distant past guards manned the heavy brake van at the rear of the train, but this requirement had long gone. The job however stayed and the poor chap sat in the rear cab of the loco – getting bored.

Bob Reid, who had become chief executive in 1980, was determined to change this. His first target was flexible rosters.

ASLEF resisted all persuasion and after two and a half years of tussle and wildcat strikes the matter came to a head in June 1982 when Bob Reid instructed managers to start issuing the new rosters.

Refusing to accept these rosters, ASLEF called a national strike to start on Sunday July 4.

This was by no means the only dispute at the time. Margaret Thatcher’s cold turkey regime – no more money – was in full force. It did in fact cure the patient but that was not easy to see if you were worried about your job. It was an extraordinary period.

Unemployment had soared and remained high. Riots were common. Companies went bust. Public sector unions fought the government: ambulance drivers, blood transfusion staff and workers in shipyards, mines and of course transport. IRA bombs threatened railway stations and killed two in Hyde Park. To cap it all, in a massive gamble, British troops had sailed to defend the Falkland Islands. After ships sank and paras yomped, the Argentinians were escorted home. The troops sailed back to Portsmouth, returning in June, just as the transport system descended into chaos.

Against this background, the ASLEF strike got underway. It was solid, very few trains ran. The whole network was closed. The damage to the country was enormous. Some drivers drifted back to work, but not many. In the second week, Bob Reid and the BR Board wrote giving notice that any drivers not returning to work would be sacked. The TUC stepped in, as they did recently – it is, after all, not the bosses who suffer from transport strikes but ordinary men and women – and the strike was called off.

Most famous, or notorious, of those condemning the strike was the leader of ASLEF’s sister union, the NUR, Sid Weighell. In a speech which became front page news in The Standard, he stuck in the knife.

He, for his union, had accepted flexible rostering – he would trade it for higher pay – and as the strike started, he rounded on ASLEF as “that mob of raging … I don’t know what word accurately describes them”.

He also remarked: “They [ASLEF] say the eight hour day is sacrosanct because their grandfather worked it. It is a farce.”

Needless to say, flexible rostering got introduced and was hugely beneficial for drivers. They ended up being paid very well to cooperate.

Other productivity issues, however, went unresolved. Requirements for double manning lingered on but our friend driver-only operation came to a head three years later. This time it was the guards who were in dispute.

BR held its hand during the miners’ strike but when it ended Bob Reid initiated trials of DOO on freight trains and stated that some London passenger trains and all Glasgow passenger trains would be converted to DOO. Staff refused to work any of the trials and 257 striking guards were fired.

The NUR called a ballot. Jimmy Knapp, he had taken over from Sid Weighell and was considerably more militant, campaigned for a national strike.

Surprisingly, he lost the ballot: 48% to 52%. Why? Bob Reid, as chairman, commanded very considerable respect and the arguments were clear: on freight trains being a guard was a pointless boring task, and no one would lose their job. The closure of engineering works or the cutting out of middle management cost people their jobs but for train crew there had been a policy throughout of no compulsory redundancy.

These two strikes by ASLEF and the NUR were massively damaging and were over changes which harmed none of their members. On the contrary they allowed pay to rise – substantially. That is why they were futile.

Since that NUR ballot 30 years ago, DOO has been introduced on all freight trains and on many passenger services: Great Northern, Thameslink, South London Inners, Strathclyde and elsewhere. That DOO has not been extended further is partly due to union resistance but also because the business case has been poor. It is expensive to fit lightly used stations with the necessary mirrors and cameras. Now, however, with trains coming ready fitted, the business case changes and the pressure is on.

Tragically, the end of the decade, the end of Bob Reid’s tenure as chairman, will be remembered for the 35 people who died in the Clapham rail accident.

Disputes and strikes over changes to working practices are extraordinarily debilitating. They soak up management time and energy and waste resources. I do not say that the 10 years of union intransigence caused the Clapham accident but I will say this; if managers had not been compelled to spend so much of their time on disputes, safety might have been looked at with greater care and the accident prevented.

The RMT is as obdurate as Ray Buckton was those many years ago. “We will not be moved.” So I can also say this. If the GTR management of Southern did not have to deal with this damaging, futile dispute they would have some chance of sorting out more quickly the other problems which Roger French described in a recent issue of this magazine (PT152).


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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