Aslef union train drivers on the picket line at Paddington station last May

Train drivers in the Aslef union are set to strike for a day next month at 16 train companies in the latest phase of a pay battle that has dragged on for 20 months. The strikes will be staggered from 5 to 8 April at different firms.

The government must decide whether to use its new anti-union laws against the action. It could tell bosses at companies it directly controls to demand the union delivers “the equivalent of 40 percent of the timetabled services” as the law now imposes.

But when this was last tried Aslef called extra strikes—and bosses backed off. But it’s embarrassing for the Tories not to be able to use a law they passed—and at some point they may carry it through.

It’s right for train drivers to strike. Many have not had a pay rise since 2019, and have been offered only below-inflation deals linked to a ferocious assault on working conditions.

Aslef members have voted repeatedly to keep up the strikes, most recently in February .

Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said, “Those votes show—yet again—a clear rejection by train drivers of the ridiculous offer put to us in April last year”. He said bosses “knew that offer would be rejected because a land grab for all the terms and conditions we have negotiated over the years would never be accepted by our members.

“That’s why Mark Harper, the transport secretary, is being disingenuous when he says that offer should have been put to members. 

“Drivers wouldn’t vote for industrial action, again and again and again, if they thought that was a good offer. They don’t. That offer was dead in the water in April last year —and Mr Harper knows that.”

That’s right, but it’s also true that the bosses’ and Tories’ contemptuous approach shows the strike strategy isn’t working.

Aslef has called 14 one-day strikes since the first strike ballots went out in June 2022. Had union leaders called an unlimited strike there would have been a settlement well before 14 days had passed. 

Instead the fragmented and on-off strikes don’t move the Tories at all—as Whelan admits. He said, “We asked Mr Harper, or his deputy, the rail minister Huw Merriman, to come and meet us. We asked the train companies to come and talk to us.

“We haven’t heard from Mr Harper, Mr Merriman, or the train companies since new strike mandates were announced four weeks ago. Mr Harper hasn’t deigned to talk to us since December 2022. Mr Merriman hasn’t talked to us since January 2023.”

If the Tories use the anti-union laws Aslef must defy them and the whole working class movement has to act in solidarity. But the strikes also have to escalate.

When are the strikes?

Friday 5 April: Avanti West Coast, East Midlands Railway, West Midlands Trains, and CrossCountry
Saturday 6 April: Chiltern, GWR, LNER, Northern, and TransPennine
Monday 8 April: c2c, Greater Anglia, GTR Great Northern Thameslink, Southeastern, Southern/Gatwick Express, South Western Railway main line and depot drivers, and SWR Island Line

As well as the walkouts, Aslef members will refuse to work rest days from Thursday 4 to Saturday 6 April and from Monday 8 to Tuesday 9 April.

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