After 13 days of rock-solid strike action, Scotrail guards/conductors continue to display tremendous courage and self-sacrifice in defence of public safety. These RMT union members are increasingly winning public support for their stance, as they suffer the loss of wages in opposition to the profit-driven Abellio bosses' reckless gamble with passenger safety, trying to impose Driver Only Operated (DOO) trains across the Central Belt and beyond. But behind a smokescreen of lies from the Abellio Scotrail spin machine - plus a lashing out with legal threats to the RMT - there are sure signs that these arrogant bosses are beginning to retreat, with a new proposal emerging from talks with both the RMT and drivers' union Aslef, literally as we post this article. Details of Abellio's offer are still hazy, but both unions would be wise to adopt the motto 'keep chasing them, they're on the run'.
This Strike is About Safety
The Scotrail guards' strike is about safety, not salaries. It's about keeping the safety-critical guards on the train, instead of dumping added responsibilities on the drivers. It's about retaining the highly-trained guards instead of - at best - replacing them with lesser-trained Ticket Examiners, whose overwhelming role is revenue collection, not safety; in reality, with no other staff on many trains except the driver.
Scotrail has pumped out a stream of lies, claiming they have no intention of making trains Driver Only Operated (DOO) during Abellio's franchise. But that's precisely the aim that's embedded in the franchise issued to them by the SNP government in October 2014. DOO is what they proposed in a letter to all staff in March. Even more explicitly, that's the aim spelt out in the accidentally leaked documents from Abellio bosses last month, which they only then apologized for - with utterly unbelievable excuses that they were 'purely discussion documents' - after Aslef threatened to ballot Scotrail drivers for action, thereby opening up a second front.
It's Not About Buttons!
Abellio bosses want to extend DOO trains on the backs of the new fleet of Hitachi electrified trains (EMUs) as a way of cutting costs and boosting their profits even further. They say it's to speed up train dispatches from stations by 15 seconds - but at what cost to safety? That's where their lie machine seeks to smother the safety-critical role of guards from public view, and insult these skilled workers with one-liners about the RMT "indulging in unnecessary strikes over who presses a button". Who in their right minds would sacrifice three weeks' pay (so far) over who presses a button?!
The Safety-Critical Role of Guards
The guards are intensively and regularly trained in at least 35 different skills that can make the difference between life and death, and certainly guarantees a level of safety and security otherwise missing for the rising number of passengers. Their skills include track safety; risks with electrified lines; dealing with fires, suspicious packages, and on-train incidents; dealing with train accidents and evacuations; signaling systems and regulations; station duties; safe train dispatches - as well as a host of customer services for disabled passengers, elderly people, on-train illnesses, and those most vulnerable to harassment and even assault by the anti-social minority, especially later at night.
The guards' role includes ensuring the train is correctly positioned at the platform, avoiding passengers spilling out onto the track if it pulls up short (as happens). They get off the train to ensure safety at the 'Platform Train Interface' - looking out for passengers falling, getting trapped in doors, getting stuck between the train and platform, alert to late runners especially - as well as helping disabled or frail passengers on and off. They only close the doors and signal the driver to drive off after all these safety checks.
In the case of accidents, where the driver is incapacitated or even killed, the guards are trained to take over communication with signal staff and carry out a range of procedures to prevent a multiple pile-up of trains, as well as safe evacuation procedures.
In contrast, Ticket Examiners primarily sell and check tickets, with only very limited customer services duties. And they are substantially lower paid than conductors/guards - which is why dilution or downright abolition of the guards' role is attractive to money-grabbing Abellio bosses - and indeed the Westminster Tory government, who commissioned the 2011 McNulty Report, which pushed for imposition of DOO trains across the UK.
Literally Driver Only!
Abellio Scotrail bosses have fired off a double-barreled lie with their protestations that they will 'always schedule a second member of staff on all trains'. What they don't mention is that they mean Ticket Examiners, instead of guards. What they desperately try to hide is the fact that on already-existing DOO trains, at least 20% run without even a Ticket Examiner on board; literally driver only! For instance, a driver I know has had an average of two trains a day with no TE in the past fortnight. At least 300 DOO trains per fortnight in recent months have run with only the driver on board. That's especially the pattern at night - precisely when anti-social behaviour and the dangers at unstaffed stations are most prevalent.
Understaffing means Ticket Examiners are frequently asked to change from a back shift to morning, when the highest ticket revenue is available, leaving drivers to be the sole staff member on later trains. An added pressure towards that trend is that safety monitoring through 'SQUIRES' is effectively only a 9 to 5 operation, leaving later trains to carry on regardless of safety risks.
Rising Risks - Demand Guards on ALL trains
Two other devastating factors underline the critical importance of keeping the guards on our trains - and indeed of not only defending the jobs and roles of the existing 600 guards, but of demanding the SNP government stand up for safety by re-introducing guards on ALL Scotrail trains.
Even the Rail Standards and Safety Board - funded by the train companies! - has newly reported a rise in assaults on platforms and trains, and a devastating 48% rise in accidents at the Platform Train Interface - the likes of 'grab and drag', falls onto the track, etc.
And the Scottish government Transport Secretary Humza Yousaf recently admitted an astonishing 70% of Scotland's stations - 214 out of 346 - are entirely unstaffed!
It's Time to go Dutch!
Abellio bosses are trying to impose DOO trains despite the proven risks to safety because their prime aim is profit maximization. And their attempts to hoodwink the public morph into obnoxious hypocrisy when we consider who owns Abellio, and what their parent company practices regarding train conductors.
Abellio was awarded the franchise by the SNP government in October 2014 - in itself a disgraceful decision, when they could have taken Scotrail into public ownership, as favored by a sweeping majority of the Scottish people. So the Scottish government spurned the opportunity for Scottish state ownership in favour of Dutch state ownership; Abellio is part of the Dutch state-owned railway company, Nederlandse Spoorwegen. The latter reported "revenue from passenger transport increased by £644.8million (in 2015) primarily due to the start of the Scotrail franchise".
And the profits siphoned off Scotrail workers and passengers have then contributed to their policy of having not just one, but TWO guards on most Dutch trains!!
Abellio Bosses' Methods Stink
Abellio's methods, in pursuit of profit, stink. For months they've planned to impose DOO across the Central Belt, bypassing the unions by use of Yammer, social media and letters to workers' home addresses. Never have they consulted with the recognized unions on their proposals. They conscripted an army of strikebreaking scabs, mostly managers, to try and break the back of the RMT. They sought to enlist a new batch from Merseyrail. They tried to divide and conquer workers by offering 'guarantees' to a minority of the guards on High Speed Trains and diesels - whilst refusing to even discuss their DOO plans with the RMT or Aslef. They rarely even agreed to talks, including ones brokered by ACAS, and consistently failed to make any meaningful proposals when they did turn up.
Abellio in Retreat
They hoped they could browbeat workers into submission. But they reckoned without the courage and tenacity of RMT strikers, and the growing opposition of drivers in Aslef to DOO.
So now Abellio has switched to a combination of repression and concession to try and break the opposition they encounter. They've just announced legal action against the RMT for 'inducing an overtime ban'. This accusation is utter rubbish; it treats workers as cattle with no minds of their own. But it's meant to scare the unions into submission.
And now they have floated a new proposal that allegedly guarantees a guard on every one of the new trains (EMUs), but would give drivers control over the train doors. That's a very significant retreat compared to their stance over recent months.
But it still begs several questions, still unanswered at least as we post this blog: Will the guard still deal with platform and train dispatches safety? If so, why not also control of the doors? What if guards go onto the platform but the driver doesn't see them and moves off? Why add to the burdens of responsibility already faced by drivers? What guarantee is there for the full duration of the Abellio franchise, and indeed after it finishes? What's to stop Abellio or their successors from phasing out guards in favour of cheaper labour - Ticket Examiners - if the roles they play are blurred, with dilution of the safety roles of the guards?
How Concessions Won
The reality is this concession has been wrung out of Abellio by the courageous, solid strike action of RMT members, the growing demand from Aslef branches for a strike ballot against DOO, and events which continued strikes will hugely impact on. Glasgow's Queen Street station is opening earlier than planned after a major overhaul, and additional services for the Edinburgh Fringe are planned, tapping into the holiday season, including the school holidays in England.
It's the first offer Abellio has made to the unions! Which, depending on details, doesn't necessarily mean the unions should accept, as it shows bosses in retreat.
SSP Acts in Solidarity
SSP members and supporters have played an important part in stepping up the pressure on Abellio - and not just through building public support for the strikers, important as that is. They were the first to demand and organise emergency branch meetings of Aslef members, which have been attended by about a third of the members - a tremendous turnout considering the number of drivers on shift at the time of meetings - where Motions demanding a strike ballot have been unanimously passed, as well as donations to the RMT strike fund.
It's no accident that subsequent to these meetings, and public announcement of their decisions, Abellio immediately agreed to talks with Aslef on DOO - after months of refusing to - and then met with the RMT and floated their new proposal. They're frightened of united action by the two unions - which is precisely why the SSP has persistently argued for Aslef to join with the RMT in action for the policy they jointly declared as recently as 27 November 2015:
"We are completely opposed to Driver Only Operation and its forms, including Driver Controlled Operation (DCO) and Driver Door Operation (DDO), throughout the network. We firmly believe this method of operation is less safe for passengers and the workforce and our unions will not agree to the extension of DOO or DCO/DDO under any circumstances.
The responsibility of the driver of the train is to drive, which requires100% focus. It is less safe for both the driver and passengers if the driver is distracted by additional duties such as protecting the platform train interface. The guard/conductor should retain responsibility for door operation."
You Can Help Win
Anyone reading this can add their weight to the strikers' courageous battle for public safety. Organise workplace collections and union donations to the RMT strike fund. Visit your nearest picket line. Write letters in support to local media. Send solidarity messages to firstname.lastname@example.org
Bombard your local MSPs and the Scottish government with demands to 'Keep the Guards'.
The stance of the SNP government on this issue shows up their leadership as pro-big business, not friends of the unions as they'd like us believe. They awarded Abellio a franchise that aims to extend DOO. They've failed to condemn Abellio's union-bashing, safety-slashing mission. Nicola Sturgeon last month trotted out the company line that this was all about 'who presses a button'.
SNP Transport Secretary Humza Yousaf tweeted, on 23 July, "Strikes should be suspended and passengers put first while dialogue ongoing". What dialogue?! Abellio had at that stage refused any meaningful negotiations. Far from suspending strikes, it was only after sustained RMT strikes and Aslef branch votes for action that they've even started talking to the unions about DOO.
The SNP government should be pounded with demands to fine Abellio for provoking disruption to services, strip them of the franchise, and to take Scotrail into public ownership - with a guard on every train.
It's time to take sides! The SSP stands squarely with the Scotrail strikers for safety - join us.