With the announcement of 3 days of strike action it is important that we recognise what has triggered this escalation in the long running dispute. ASLEF suspended their industrial action and entered into talks with GTR at the start of June to try and make progress on three issues, terms and conditions, industrial relations and their 2016 pay talks.

The Union was clear from the outset that the pay talks must be separate from any DOO discussions. Mick Whelan, ASLEF General Secretary, stated that there would be “parallel but separate talks”.

Despite this clear statement by Mick Whelan the pay offer tabled by GTR contained the following clause:

‘these increases are linked to the following changes in driver working practises and terms and conditions, and is made on the basis that:

  1. Driver Only Operation
·Driver only Operation is confirmed as the standard mode of operation for Southern and Gatwick Express Drivers, where the train is equipped with in cab CCTV and the track and signalling infrastructure meets the relevant standards for DOO operation.’

This transparent attempt by GTR to bully Drivers by withholding their 2016 pay award unless they agreed to end their long running dispute over the imposition of DOO was rejected immediately by the ASLEF National Executive. A decision which was overwhelmingly ratified by the Drivers in the recent ballot leading to the announcement of the 3 days of strike action.

It is GTR who must be held responsible for this escalation in industrial action. To secure a wage offer to address their members’ 2016 wage claim Aslef were faced with the stark choice of abandoning their national policy and surrendering their fight against the imposition of DOO or balloting their members for strike action. This clause made it impossible for ASLEF to accept the wage offer without ratifying DOO. GTR/DFT knew that by inserting this clause into the offer they would make it impossible for ASLEF to do anything other than reject it as it would be a breach of union policy.

The DFT/GTR knew that by making a wage offer which the ASLEF leadership would be forced to reject would give them the opportunity to convince drivers that the union had denied them a 23.8% wage rise. Their hope was to turn Southern drivers against the union causing fatal damage to ASLEF on Southern. This and the other attempts to undermine the unions is all part of the long term DFT strategy outlined by Peter Wilkinson in February 2016 when he said he would kick the unions out of his industry.

The strike action announced by ASLEF is not about securing an improved financial package but is in response to this attempt by the DFT/GTR to undermine the union. The DFT/GTR believed that combining the acceptance of DOO with the wage offer put them in a win win position. ASLEF’s rejection of the pay offer would either incense drivers causing internal disputes leading to a seriously weakened Union, or the drivers would support the union in their rejection of the offer allowing the DFT /GTR to isolate them and demonise them in the eyes of other rail staff and the travelling public by portraying them as militant and greedy.

It is important that it is recognised that the rejection of this offer by the ASLEF National Executive and the vote for industrial action by Southern drivers is to be welcomed by everyone who wants to see a Safe, Accessible and Secure rail network.

The catalyst for three days of strike action in August is not greed on the part of Southern drivers but the contempt Peter Wilkinson and his friends at the DFT have for Trade Unions and his obsession with “kicking them out of his industry”. Wilkinson knows that he must first weaken the rail unions before the DFT can implement their plans to run the network on a skeleton staff which will allow them to maximise profits at the cost of safety, accessibility and security. Wilkinson and his kind want to run an industry without having to deal with unions continually challenging them about the safety of passengers, the rights of the disabled and the Terms and Conditions of their members, an industry run for the benefit of private investors not for the benefit of the travelling public.

If further proof was needed to confirm that the DFT and the Government are behind this de-staffing of the rail network and the war on the rail unions then take note of the latest  reported comments made by Chancellor Philip Hammond at the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday 11th July 2017. It was reported in the press that he was trying to make a point about how easy the job of driving a train had become, saying “even they (women) can do it”. The story is being reported due to his comments being clearly sexist but the question that needs to be asked is what was the Chancellor doing at a Cabinet meeting devaluing the role of the train driver? This comment by Hammond confirms discussions are taking place at Cabinet level to attack rail staff and their unions. The only other explanation would be that this is Hammond’s answer to the possibility of a skills crisis post Brexit, short of neurosurgeons “don’t worry it’s so easy even women can do it”, short of nuclear physicists “don’t worry it’s so easy even women can do it”, short of rich, fat cat loving, worker hating elitists” don’t worry there is Philip Hammond and 315 of his smug Tory mates  who can fill the role” (please note this figure is predicted to drop dramatically after the next election ).

These comments made in a Cabinet meeting highlight that the attacks on the rail unions are know being orchestrated by this discredited Tory Government at the highest level while the sexist element to Hammond’s comments illustrates how well suited  the Tories are to their coalition partners the DUP, truly a marriage made in hell.

It is vitally important that we get this message out to counter the Government led anti-union propaganda which is now being aimed at the ASLEF/RMT Southern Drivers for their action planned for August. They are already condemning the greed of ASLEF for rejecting a 23.8% pay offer but are conveniently forgetting to mention that it was only offered if they ended their dispute over the imposition of DOO. It is essential that everyone who wants to see a Safe, Accessible and Secure rail network understands that we can only win this battle if we ensure that they fail in their attempt to isolate Southern Drivers. This is a dispute planned by the Government, the DFT and GTR in an attempt to divide and weaken the rail unions and to discredit them in the eyes of the Disability Groups, Commuter Groups and the Travelling Public. We need to ensure that we make use of all means available to us to counter their misinformation with the truth. Providing we can remain united and retain the support of those who are reliant on the rail industry we will be successful.