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As the next round of industrial action approaches, train operators are getting ready to continue their prolonged and contentious conflict regarding wages and working conditions. The leader of their union has promised, “We will persist until the end.”
In an interview with The Independent, Mick Whelan, the general secretary of Aslef, stated that they have been engaged in this conflict for more than 16 months.
“We did not initiate this dispute. It was not our decision to withhold pay raises for five years.”
Aslef has a disagreement with 14 train operators in England who have been hired by the government to offer railway services. These operators consist of major intercity companies and train companies that cater to commuters in London, the Midlands, and the North of England. This dispute does not involve ScotRail or Transport for Wales.
The union is requesting an unconditional salary raise and subsequent discussions at a regional level to update work procedures – this will come at an added cost for the employers.
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents train operators, states that a salary increase will only be possible if significant reforms are implemented. The Department for Transport (DfT) will approve any agreement, with taxpayers covering the expenses as ticket sales have decreased by approximately 20% compared to before the Covid pandemic.
Aslef members are preparing to begin a period of industrial action lasting nine days. This will result in the cancellation of a large number of trains and significantly impact the travel arrangements of millions of passengers during the busy Christmas season.
During the first nine days of December, train operators will not be working any additional hours. Throughout this time period, there will be a sequence of intermittent strikes taking place across various rail companies and regions on various days.
This is a shift in strategy for a labor dispute that has resulted in nationwide strikes by train operators on 14 different occasions since July 2022.
“We believe it is important to demonstrate our ability to adapt our strategies in order to effectively handle any challenges that may arise in the future,” stated Mr. Whelan.
For almost nine months, we have not received any communication from the RDG, government, or any other party.
I have not encountered [transport secretary] Mr Harper since December of last year. I have not come across [rail minister] Mr Merriman since January 6th, when the dishonest agreement he was involved in was made public. And I have not had any interactions with anyone from the RDG since their act of betrayal in April.
“We approached these discussions with sincere intentions, but their behavior throughout the entire process has been appalling.”
The rail minister, Huw Merriman, stated that Aslef is currently the sole rail union on strike and the only one that has not presented a pay offer to its members, despite RMT members voting in favor of the train operators’ offer.
Instead of making positive changes, they are deliberately causing more suffering for travelers and those in the hospitality industry during the holiday season.
The proposed offer, which has been available for a while, would increase the average salary of train drivers to £65,000 for a four-day work week of 35 hours.
The leaders of Aslef should follow the example of other rail unions and allow their members to have a voice in considering the offer.
The RDG’s proposal of a 5% wage increase for 2022, with potential for higher raises for lower-paid employees, was overwhelmingly supported by members of the RMT rail union. Backdated pay will be distributed to RMT members in time for Christmas. If the deal is accepted, discussions will commence in the New Year between union delegates and individual railway companies.
A comparable agreement may be satisfactory to train operators, however the Aslef leader clarified that no such proposal has been presented: “If the RMT agrees to it willingly, that is their decision.”
The RDG’s lack of communication with us while meeting with other groups through the framework agreement indicates the direction and tactics of the DfT and government.
“Regrettably, they have not reached out to us and have not expressed any desire to communicate with us.”
A representative from the Rail Delivery Group stated that their main focus is to resolve this disagreement in a just and reasonable manner in order to bring an end to the inconvenience for our passengers. Additionally, they aim to provide their employees with a salary increase and stabilize the industry’s financial status during a time where taxpayers are contributing an additional £54m per week to maintain post-Covid operations.
“We have consistently emphasized our willingness to engage in productive discussions with Aslef in order to reach a resolution, and that stance remains unchanged.”
Mr Whelan suggests that a new government may be necessary in order to find a solution. He stated, “I am proposing it as a possibility. After waiting for almost six or seven months, or even longer, for someone to address and resolve what they deem to be a significant issue, but they have made no efforts to do so, one can assume that they have no intention of doing so during this term of Parliament.”
The choice to not expand HS2 [from Birmingham to Manchester] is a political decision.
The decision to prioritize car drivers over public transport is a political one.
This event would occur regardless of our disagreement.
“It is necessary to consider that they are prolonging the process. Or was this simply a strategic move, taking advantage of their anti-union laws, to exhaust the unions and expect us to return to negotiations with no bargaining power?”
The responsibility has always been on them, considering that we do not engage in discussions with the government and we are not employed by the government.
We are employed by private corporations that generate large profits and distribute dividends to their shareholders. However, our negotiated collective bargaining agreements are consistently disregarded by these companies.
“We have a cartel of individuals who prioritize their own profits over running an efficient and safe railway, while neglecting to fairly compensate the hardworking individuals who maintain it. The government is complicit in this harmful behavior.”