Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, explains why his members have been on strike this summer
Train drivers in ASLEF, which represents 96% of the train drivers in England, Scotland and Wales, have taken four days of strike action so far this year. Not, as some commentators have suggested, a ‘summer of discontent’ but in what we see as a ‘summer of solidarity’, as workers in many different sectors take industrial action and offer each other support on picket lines up and down this country.
Because – as we have been saying at meetings this autumn – Enough is Enough.
Our drivers have been on strike – on Saturday 30th July, Saturday 13th August, Saturday 1st October and Wednesday 5th October – at those privatised train companies which have refused to give our members, who have not had an increase since 2019, a pay rise.
We would, of course, much rather not be in this position. We don’t want to go on strike; withdrawing your labour, although a fundamental human right, is always a last resort. We don’t want to inconvenience passengers, and we don’t want our members to lose money.
But the companies – and we can see the Tory government leading them on this – appear determined to force our hand. Because they are telling train drivers to take a real-terms pay cut. With inflation now running at 12.3% – and set, economists say, to go higher – they are, in effect, telling us that train drivers should be prepared to work just as hard, for just as long, but for considerably less, in real terms, in their pay packets. And that’s not on.
The companies with whom we are in dispute have not offered us a penny. It’s outrageous that they expect us to put up with a real-terms pay cut for a third year in a row. That’s why we have been on strike: to persuade the companies to be sensible, to do the right thing, and to come and negotiate properly with us, rather than claiming ‘We don’t have the money’ (which they do) or blaming the Government for ‘not allowing us to pay you what you’re worth’ – which might well be true.
We want to do a deal. We have successfully negotiated pay deals with 11 train companies this year – DB Cargo, Eurostar, Freightliner Heavy Haul, Freightliner Intermodal, GB Railfreight, Grand Central, Merseyrail, MTR Elizabeth Line, Nexus, PRE Metro Operations and ScotRail – and are in dispute only with those companies which have failed to offer their drivers – our members – anything.
There are 13 of them – Avanti West Coast, Chiltern Railways, CrossCountry, East Midlands Railway, Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains, LNER, London Overground, Northern Trains, Southeastern, TransPennine Express and West Midlands Trains. Our members have voted overwhelmingly for action.
Some people try to say that strikes don’t work. But they do! Our strikes have forced the train companies to come to the negotiating table, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the transport secretary, has said – in what is perhaps a significant change in the mood music at the DfT – that she wants the ‘railway family’ to come together to sort things out.
Rail minister Kevin Foster, speaking at the Rail Forum annual conference in Birmingham in October, said, “It is, ultimately, the employers who the unions need to be talking to, but both myself and the secretary of state believe there is a deal to be done.”
No offers have yet been made. But we have made our case for an increase. They know what we want, where we stand, and what we are prepared to do if we do not get it.
In the past, we have been condemned for going on strike. But now, people come up to me on the picket line and wish us well. Because everyone – well, almost everyone – is suffering now. Not the very rich, of course. Not the Tory Party donors. But ordinary hard-working people. That’s why the Government – and the employers – are losing the PR war. That’s why so many of us are saying, “Enough is enough.” Not just train drivers, but nurses, and care workers, and posties, and even barristers – who got a pay rise of 15%! Who said strikes don’t work? They do.
That’s why the Tories are threatening yet more anti-union legislation. And that’s why we need to stand firm, to stand shoulder to shoulder, first for a pay rise for every working man and woman, and then to see off the legislation this government wants to bring in on behalf of its donors, the bosses of Britain.