On the Trains: an interview with a striking Northern Rail worker

In the UK, 2017 saw one of the lowest numbers of working days lost to strike action since records began with only 33,000 days lost – the majority of which were due to strike action organised through the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). New Syndicalist sat down to talk with a striking railway worker and RMT member about the ongoing “Guard Guarantee” dispute between their union and Northern Rail (a train operating company in Northern England), the dynamics of the dispute and what lessons can be learned for other trade unionists.

What is the role of a guard?

We play a safety critical role on a train. Guards are trained on evacuation, route knowledge such as whether the line is electrified, and the safe dispatch of trains from stations. We deal with anti-social behaviour such as sexual harassment, and play a role in preventing terrorism.

Can you provide us with a background to the dispute?

We’ve been in dispute with Northern Rail since March 2017, over plans to move to driver only operated (DOO) trains. This has been the 28th day we’ve been on strike, with another 3 days announced this week after ACAS talks collapsed. The RMT has been in disputes with Merseyrail, South Western, Greater Anglia, ScotRail and companies in Wales over similar issues. In Manchester Piccadilly, not a single guard has crossed the pickets. In our dispute with Merseyrail we saw drivers in ASLEF (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen) trade union refuse to cross picket lines. Even though ASLEF have sent a letter to all their Northern Rail driver members informing them that they won’t be disciplined for refusing to cross picket lines (train drivers were balloted in this dispute as well, meaning it would not be unofficial action), drivers continue to cross pickets.

Why is that?

It’s in part to do with the culture of drivers, and their union. Northern have recruited drivers from Metrolink (Manchester trams), the police and the army – not workplaces with a tradition of trade unionism. In Piccadilly ASLEF representatives cross picket lines, and this sets an example for other drivers. ASLEF is historically a more conservative, craft based union which predominantly recruits train drivers. This is a much more sectional approach than the RMT, which organises industrially.

What is the feeling of members in the dispute?

Guards are supportive of this dispute. Pickets are well attended, and are strong across the network. In South Western, guards have been balloted three times due to the restrictions placed on strike action by the Trade Union Act. Each time we’ve returned a bigger mandate for action.

What’s the relationship between officials and rank and file members like?

RMT Regional Official (Darren Ireland) is supportive of the action, attending pickets, and was re-elected during the dispute. The RMT is one of the most democratic unions in the country, and we’ve seen the President, Sean Hoyle, and Assistant General Secretary, Steve Hedley attending pickets to show support.

How have the media covered the dispute so far?

The BBC has been unable or unwilling to understand the role of the guard, portraying us only as someone who opens doors. Originally the media was only covering the dispute on South West, due to London bias, although this is starting to change. Traditionally left-wing papers, such as the Morning Star and the Socialist have positively covered the dispute.

How has management reacted?

Management were sending propaganda emails to members with statistics of the number of trains running that were inflated. They had originally claimed that 60% of trains were running, although the real figure was probably lower. Since moving to Saturday strikes, this number has dropped to 30% (although probably lower again). This move was asked for by members and decided by the RMT’s company council – workplace representatives who decide when we strike, rather than officials or executives.

Have you received support and solidarity from other unions?

Apart from the mixed response by ASLEF mentioned earlier, we’ve been supported by Manchester Trades Council and have had activists from other trade unions – Unison, PCS and Unite – visit our picket line. Some trades councils have donated to our strike fund.

What would it take to win?

We need to escalate action, by striking more frequently. We’re starting to do this now, with weekly strikes every Saturday. Northern Rail wants to introduce DOO trains by the end of the year. The RMT have won, or reached deals with Greater Anglia, Merseyrail, ScotRail and Wales to keep the guard on the train. Only Northern and South West are still on strike. Internal documents by Northern and the Department of Transport planned for an estimated 10 days of action – we’ve nearly tripled that! The Labour Party has promised to keep the guards on the train if elected, although whether they keep that promise if they win is a different kettle of fish…

What has the impact of this strike been on the union? We’ve seen strikes in UCU (University and College Union – listen to our episode of Talking Shop about this dispute here) have a positive, radicalising effect for a range of young members – has this dispute had the same effect on the RMT?

In general, Northern has been recruiting new people as they’ve been expanding the network. In turn, this has brought new members into the union, and the strike has brought new, young activists into the union – this is vitally important for the trade union movement, where nearly 40% of trade union members are over 50. Being on strike is intrinsically radical. When you see managers scabbing whilst you’re on a strike to keep your job it teaches you that managers aren’t your friends. When you’re in a dispute and you see bosses lying to your face, you know that you have different interests. You learn that if we don’t stick together, they’ll steam-roll us. The conversations we have on picket lines are important. There’s a cross fertilisation of ideas, and older members educate newer members on previous struggles.

What lessons and tactics do you think can be learned from this dispute by other trade unions?

The most important lesson is you can beat anti-trade union laws. But you have to be part of a democratic union, which is present and visible in all areas of the workplace. If you let members see the union as insurance, you’ll only ever see poor levels of turnout and engagement. Democratically elected officials is crucial – it’s part of what makes the RMT strong. We organise industrially across the entire workplace, rather than in a sectional manner. This is another important lesson for the trade union movement.

Is there a way for activists to communicate across different workplaces and companies?

Activists will visit picket lines on other depots – Manchester Piccadilly is only a short distance from Victoria (the other main train station in Manchester). We’ve had members visit pickets in Liverpool, to show support for their dispute with Merseyrail. Our branch represents everyone who works at Piccadilly, regardless of job role or company.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’d encourage readers to join the picket lines, with potential free bacon sandwiches on offer – and maybe even a vegetarian option!
maybe even a vegetarian option!

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