Aslef union members picket in Hastings during the first day of the train strike (Picture: Simon Hester)

Snorting Tory conference delegates swore death to striking rail workers as they couldn’t reach their gathering in Manchester by train. Socialist Worker was in central London on Saturday morning and overheard one Tory delegate saying, “No trains! We should string them up if they won’t work.” 

Aslef union members struck across 16 train operators in England on Saturday and are set to walk out again on Wednesday. These will be the 13th and 14th strikes since the action started in June 2022.

Drivers also boycotted overtime on Friday and will do so again from Monday until Friday next week, causing some cancellations.

Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan was at the picket line at Euston station on Saturday morning. “All I have seen from the government, department for transport, the treasury and employers is lies and deceit,” he said. He added the bosses’ negotiating tactics were “designed to fail” and the deal on the table meant “ripping up all our conditions, local and national”.

An Aslef member told Socialist Worker, “Nobody wants to give in. Nobody thinks we have yet got an offer that is remotely acceptable. Nobody thinks this is going to be easy. And even if there’s a change of government and Keir Starmer is in Number 10, I’m not sure there would be a major change of attitude from the top.”

Tory transport secretary Mark Harper condemned the walkout as “a political strike”. It’s partly because all strikes raise political issues, but also because the government is overtly intervening to defend the rail companies.

The Tories are funnelling hundreds of millions of pounds to the firms to compensate them for their losses during strikes. It’s a clear political choice.

The rail strikes on Wednesday will coincide with the BMA junior doctors’ and consultants’ walkouts that begin on Monday. London Underground strikes are also set for Wednesday and Friday next week.

The strikes ram home the Tories’ fragility. It would have been good if more unions had come out during the conference. The RMT, for example, which discussed strikes during the conference, could have been out as well as Aslef.

But there’s no sign of victory in the rail strikes and there is—again—talk of escalation. Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan told the BBC he couldn’t “write anything off”, adding “we’ve been doing this for 16 months, stopping now is not an option”. He said the action could continue until Christmas. 

On the present pattern, it feels like it could go on for years. On 1 May, five months ago, Whelan wrote, “Progress has been slow but we believe there will be an offer shortly.” No such new offer has appeared since then.

There have been no further talks with the government or rail firms since April. The union rightly rejected a below-inflation offer of 8 percent over two years with strings attached earlier this year, describing it as risible.

Many Aslef members have not had a pay rise for four years. Whelan added in May, “We may need to take further and possibly prolonged industrial action. There are, in this dispute, no shortcuts–despite the frustration we all feel.”

Whelan keeps talking about escalation. But Aslef leaders then return to the on-off strikes with weeks between them, and not at the same time as the RMT strikes.

RMT members are now voting to renew their strike mandate, with the ballot closing on 19 October. It’s important to win these votes. But to win means a big shift in strategy. Some Aslef branches have pushed for more frequent strikes—every Saturday or every fortnight.

Any escalation would be an improvement. But the real issue is that, had the unions begun an indefinite strike last year, it would have been won by now. It would have probably taken fewer strike days than have now been racked up.

Another issue is looming. At some point in the next few months, the government will finalise the details of its new anti-union laws. And rail workers are sure to be among the early targets. There has to be defiance of those laws and massive strikes by rail workers and others.

Tube walkouts coming

The Tube action set for Wednesday and Friday next week will cause a lot of disruption. But it involves only station and revenue staff, not drivers.

An RMT union rep and station staff member on London Underground wrote in Socialist Worker, “In stations, new rosters have been imposed that have slashed staff numbers. We exist in a state of constant chaos. 

“We get emails appealing for overtime several times a day from across the network, and station closures have rocketed. 

“More stations are left unstaffed or have staff working alone, increasing their risk of suffering violence and abuse. As assaults rise, more workers are then off work, increasing the dire staffing situation.

“By striking we’re also standing up for a decent service for passengers and their safety.

“Now we face a whole reorganisation of areas across London Underground. This would increase the number of stations staff work at and mean longer travel times to and from work. 

“On top of that our pension remains under threat and management want to change things such as our attendance at work policy. A previously floated draconian policy showed they want to clamp down on sick workers and make it easier to push people out of their jobs.”

It has taken real rank and file pressure to get the union to call these strikes. And the strike mandate runs out in November.

Aslef, the union which most Tube drivers are in, has recently won another strike vote. But despite having a strike mandate for around three years, its leaders have called just a single 24-hour strike on 15 March.

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