Many small strikes combined into one big one would send profit sharks packing!

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17 November 2009

What is the government's policy for the railways? In one word: cuts.

Whether public, like the London Tube or Network Rail, or private, like the buses and (most) train operating companies, this is Brown's agenda throughout the transport system - and the rest of public services, for that matter.

The latest news is that transport infrastructure will be cut directly by cancelling £750m worth of projects. Crossrail is yet again under threat as is the upgrading of Thameslink.

Network Rail workers have already felt the sharp end of the axe - 1,800 jobs were cut in the last few months, and now the government's appointees on this body want to sack the entire 13,000 workforce and rehire fewer of them on reduced wages, terms and conditions! Never mind that the West Coast mainline will be worst affected - and that it was on this line that the last serious derailment happened - at Grayrigg in 2007 - causing 30 serious injuries and one death.

As for the private train companies, they have cut all categories of workers to the bone and instituted de facto pay cuts. But cuts even deeper than the bone have been made when it comes to drivers. Right across the network, they have deliberately avoided recruiting new drivers, expecting the existing drivers, as a matter of course, to work on their rest days to cover a dire shortage.

First culprit, worst culprit

When First decided that an appropriate "reward" for all its rail staff, including drivers, would be to give them a 0% pay rise this year - after 7 months delay - it proved the last straw.

Drivers had already begun to refuse Sunday overtime, resulting in the cancellation of all Sunday services on London Midland and First Capital Connect over the past months.

But last week when First Capital Connect drivers simply exercised their right not to work overtime during weekdays - the company's failure was exposed when 50% of regular Thameslink trains had to be cancelled. A similar situation may well arise on First Great Western. In the meantime, the drivers' union, ASLEF has announced a ballot over the pay freeze among First Capital Connect drivers, but so far it is not balloting all the drivers across the network, nor even those who work for the same company on different lines. And even though the rest of the workforce has exactly the same problem, they are so far left out in the cold...

But guess what? The bus drivers who went on strike last week happen to be employed by ... First, and are faced with the self-same wage freeze! All of the routes run by First in London - mainly under the name of the "East London Bus Company" were solidly out for 24 hours. But in fact bus drivers employed by First, but also by other companies, up and down the country have been striking on an off for months, over pay and conditions.

Yet by an ironic twist, the government has appointed the ex-managing director of (failing) First Capital Connect as head of the holding company called Directly Operated Trains - which just took over (failed) National Express East Coast! Do 2 failures make a success these days? That says it all about Brown and his minister, Lord Adonis!

The London Underground workers, also facing cuts and a derisory pay offer: 1.5% this year and 0.5% for the following 2 years, linked to inflation, have now just decided to ballot for strike...

Co-ordination is a key

Improvements in wages and conditions are obviously urgent and vital, just as improvements in the inadequate, overcrowded and over-priced public transport systems, are. There is no way running services like this can be safe. But there is no way the workforce can carry on bearing the burden when it is under attack in every respect - be it through job cuts, wage cuts, or cuts in conditions. Evidently, the answer would be for workers to take their interests and the interests of commuters into their own hands and begin to fight back.

This is already starting to happen on the buses, and among train drivers, etc., with ballots for action against cuts and wage freezes. But for it to be effective, there needs to be conscious co-ordination between the workers who are fighting. What is more, workers cannot afford to be stopped by the fact that the transport system has been splintered into a galaxy of different companies by past governments. What we see today, is that regardless of the difference in uniform, badge, or company logo, workers have exactly the same interests to defend - against the same attacks - whether from the government itself or from a government-funded profit shark. The watchword has to be: "all together"!