Workers in the rail industry have long been weakened by the fact that they are organised into three different unions, depending on whether they are drivers (mostly Aslef), guards (RMT) or clerical workers (mostly TSSA).
The RMT has made efforts to recruit across the industry, with a handful of drivers and clerical workers becoming members, and on some issues (like the campaign to renationalise the railways) there has been some collaboration between the different unions.
For the last year and a half there has been an uneasy alliance between RMT and Aslef over the issue of attempts by a number of train operating companies to extend driver-only operation (DOO).
Management efforts to strip on-train guards of their safety responsibilities as a prelude to getting rid of the guard altogether and running trains just with drivers have been met with long-running strike action from both RMT and ASLF. Where the unions have struck in tandem the impact has been enormous, especially on Southern Rail.
However, early in November the news broke that Aslef had concluded a separate peace with Southern Rail, breaking ranks with the RMT in what general secretary Mick Cash denounced as a “shabby deal”.
Aslef claimed to have extracted a promise that only in “exceptional circumstances” would trains be sent out without a second, safety-trained person on board. This ‘promise’, even if adhered to, is sufficiently vague (Who determines what constitutes ‘exceptional circumstances’? And what counts as safety training?) to let management get away with murder.
The government has clearly been encouraging Southern Rail and other rail companies to hang tough on this issue, with the intention of extending DOO throughout the industry and facing down the militant resistance of the RMT. Whatever promises Aslef believes it has been given, government sources are already crowing that the Aslef deal gives the go-ahead for DOO across the industry.
This triumph of the craft-union spirit over industrial solidarity comes at a price for Southern Rail, which is committed to paying a thousand drivers a 28.5 percent pay rise over five years. But this will be understood as a price worth paying if it can sow disunity amongst rail workers and weaken their collective resistance to the development of a privatised rail industry that routinely cuts corners on safety in order to protect the profit margins of shareholders. (Train drivers agree 28 percent pay rise to end Southern Rail strikes by Graeme Paton, The Times, 9 November 2017)