Monday saw the worst possible opening to a week, a 24 hour tube strike left commuters frustratingly searching for alternate routes around the country’s capital. On a bleak, rainy morning, my Facebook timeline was filled with forlorn, moaning travellers – and I have to admit, I was one of them. However, underground passengers were afforded a taste of the disruption that those travelling on Southern Rail have been experiencing throughout the latter part of 2016. Despite the prolonged period and the frequency of the strikes, how many actually know what the dispute concerns? TCC analyses the arguments, the future of such negotiations, and the modern day power of unions.

Southern Rail Argument:

The dispute largely centres on whether the guard, or the train driver, should be responsible for opening and closing doors on the trains. The train operator, Southern Rail, states that if drivers close the doors, guards will be free to deliver better customer service. Furthermore, the efficiency arguments proclaim a reduction in time that it takes to set off after each stop; something which may be particularly useful given that the rail is one of the most congested networks, especially around peak times. In addition, trains will be able to run in the event that a guard is unavailable, accounting for staff shortages and sick days, which means the number of cancelled trains will be reduced. Southern Rail expresses that the plans have no relevance to job cuts; stating that the numbers of guards, and their salaries, will be unaffected by such a change.

Union Arguments:

The unions, in contrast, insist that this move would endanger passengers. The Nation Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) believes that there should always be a guard on board to protect the safety of the passengers. Quoting figures that over the past 15 years, there has been a 64% increase in passengers using Southern Rail. As a result, there is an increased risk to passenger safety at platform / train interface – especially at congested hours.

GTR, the Rail Safety and Standards Board, and most of the industry, contest this viewpoint and proclaim that driver operated doors are safe – pointing to the longstanding practice of the method in some parts of the rail network, including Southern Rail’s sister Thameslink services. Unions, however, question the independence of the safety board, and Drivers’ union Aslef argues that CCTV does not give the same level of oversight to the driver as a conductor would have in closing the doors.

Collective bargaining, a process in which trade unions representing workers negotiate with employers about the terms and conditions of employment, was once a prominent force. Statistics now show Britain’s trade unions to be a dwindling force. Since peaking in 1979, their membership has fallen from 13 million to 7 million, members are getting older, and the average number of strikes occur almost one tenth as often as in the 1970s. Reasons for this could include that large manufacturing industries have declined in Britain; thinking about the closing down of mines in the Thatcher regime. Furthermore, the growth of legislation in recent decades which provide individual rights may have reduced the need for many to join unions.

Despite this general decline, certain industries have managed to maintain the high levels of unionisation. Many of them, including transport, are those whose workers run a service that no one else can offer. The RMT has seen its membership increase by almost one fifth since 2004. If the Southern Rail dispute shows anything, it is that unions in these industries can still have a major part to play.

Passenger Viewpoint:

What about the viewpoints of passengers? To be honest, most could not care less about who presses the button to open or close the door, people just want a reliable service. The disruptions over the past months from the strikes have led to increased journey times and often cancellations preventing travelling at all. Such have detrimental effects to daily commuters and general activities. Given the excessive amounts that such working commuters have to fork out for railcards, the increased hindrance is infuriating. Some services are cancelled at short notice, even on working days.

Commuting into London from Brighton, early in the morning in order to start the working day, many passengers have stated that a normal 1 hour 15 commute has often turned into a 3 hour journey due to delays and cancellations. Then, after finishing work, apologising for being late despite these matters being out of your control, there’s no guarantee about the returning transport home. For many, this is a daily occurrence.

Future of the Disputes:

The 11th January saw the 31st day of strike action, where services affected 300,000 people. Despite this figure, Southern Rail said that a peace deal with the unions was a “universe away”, but also added that they are in it for the long haul. So, as the dispute is causing such frustration, both socially and economically, why is it being prolonged? Undoubtedly, the matter goes far beyond who presses a button. These commuters are caught in a cross-fire dispute about the future of the railway in Britain.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has backed the striking drivers and said he would be happy to join them; the reason being that he thinks the negotiating behaviour of Southern Rail has been unprofessional, and he has criticised the government for protecting the operator, as opposed to condemning their appalling service and securing a better circumstance for the commuters. Corbyn wants the franchise brought back into public ownership. The state provides the rails, and the trains, yet the operators make the profits from running them.

So, why isn’t the government intervening? Unions are keen to protect their members against detrimental changes. However, the Government believes that this fight is necessary to drag the railway into a more modern setting. The Southern Rail dispute hosts the battleground. So, rather than stripping the train operator’s franchise, it is watching the dispute play out. The Southern Rail passengers are seen as expendable, caught up in a war which they believe will ultimately benefit future travellers and taxpayers – sacrifice for the greater good.

Theresa Maybe, as nicknamed this week for being indecisive and overly cautious, is reluctant to engage with anything that would weaken an impending focus on Brexit. Interacting with unions, which is never an easy task, would undoubtedly interfere with this focus. However, with Labour split over the backing of the strikes, engaging with the matters could provide the Prime Minister with an avenue for further dividing members of the opposite. Matters might have to enter the Parliamentary fray shortly as Chris Philp, a Tory backbencher, has called for strikes industries such as transport to be legal only if at least 50% of services are maintained.

In a cloud of uncertainty as to what the final outcome will be, and when it will occur, the certain fact is that the feature looks as bleak as the dull London weather was today. 2017 on the southern rails of the country look set to continue in the same manner as 2016 ended. Can the commuters be used as cannon-fodder in a dispute between stubborn entities?


By Dre Efthymiou

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