Derailing Neoliberalism

Haines-Doran, Tom
Date Written:  2016-10-19
Publisher:  Jacobin
Year Published:  2016
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20478

Haines-Doran examines the British transit workers' stike against rail privitization with its lack of concern for safety, unions, and workers' rights.



Specifically, the strike is over attempts by a private operator to cut staffing levels at stations and on trains. More broadly, it is a response to a new, more aggressive attempt to break the power of rail unions.

Southern Rail is a brand name for local train services running from the southeast coast of England into London. It is owned by a private train-operating company called Govia Thameslink Railway, which is an unholy alliance of a private transport multinational, a Canadian pension fund, and the publicly owned French state railways.

GTR took over services in 2014 with a specific remit to reduce staffing costs, in the context of complex engineering upgrades taking place and chronic difficulties in keeping public spending on railways down. They have been in dispute with the workers and their unions on Southern services ever since. It has also become very clear that the company hasn’t hired enough staff to run its services, meaning that even on non-strike days, the company has been running a highly curtailed service, bringing misery to commuters.

Regarding the strike itself, it has long been the practice to employ a conductor on trains, who is responsible for many safety functions, including the operation of doors at stations. GTR proposes to replace guards with train staff providing "customer service" duties and checking tickets, while the drivers take over door duties. As the conductor's union, the Rail, Maritime, and Transport union (RMT) points out, these customer service staff will not be properly safety-trained, meaning that in an emergency safety would be compromised relative to existing arrangements. Also, GTR are not guaranteeing that a train would need this second member of staff before specifying their duties.

This, as the RMT correctly believe, could be the thin end of the wedge: once you acknowledge that only a driver is needed to run a train, then in the future these second members of staff could be easily cut. Without them, wheelchair users and other passengers requiring assistance would be widely excluded from travel in the Southern area. The conductors' strike is therefore about maintaining safety standards and providing the best service for passengers, as well as being more obviously about protecting members' jobs.

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