EDEditors of Notes From Below

TWA Train manufacturing worker

EDSo you work in the rail industry, and have done for some years. Could you briefly explain the work you are doing now?

TWI used to work on the underground, and then went onto work for a train manufacturer, luckily escaping to another job just as the whole train industry went bankrupt. Now I’m supplying components for ongoing maintenance, producing parts for trains.

EDHow does this work fit into the rail industry as a whole? What’s the role of specialised work like that?

TWObviously there is the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), but also ASLEF (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen), which people on the left are less keen to talk about; but both are hugely important. Just as the current non-entity of a Transport Secretary admitted in an interview, it would have been cheaper to just settle lots of pay disputes rather than let it roll on; they did so for propaganda purposes, and because they assumed they could smash the primary unions due to much lower rail usage.

Despite all the commentary on the RMT and right-wing media attacks, people have missed out ASLEF and the role it plays within the industry. Although they’re more conservative, the importance they have is massively understated. As I’ve recently moved more into technical and design work, I have come to understand the power they hold. When any changes to train designs are proposed, you have to take into account not only legislative issues, ergonomics, materials, capital and all of that – but also ASLEF and the response they will have. There are not many trade unions left in the country with that kind of power.

ASLEF is through and through a craft union, which is why people on the left don’t like to talk about it – but it’s bloody good at what it does. Obviously it has other limits, e.g. its subs are around 30 pounds a month. But it does advocate strongly for its members. In contrast, with the RMT, there is an element of just trying to get everyone into one big overall trade union. I think the union overstate how serious they are about that as a project, but there are elements of that kind of syndicalism.

EDHow would you make sense of the current state of union organisation and struggle within the UK rail industry, specifically regarding the current disputes?

TWYes, It’s kind of in their DNA. Interestingly enough, it is actually in their constitution. If you do a literalist reading, it still has a version of the ‘one big union’ revolutionary syndicalist thing. Now, it’s one thing for an organisation to say this; an organisation can declare anything it likes in its constitution! But certainly, the RMT have made various attempts to try and create one rail union. In my own union, TSSA (Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association), our leadership lied about RMT approaching us to merge. In theory though, it could happen.

With ASLEF, however, this is so unlikely. Their premise, as a craft union, is almost incompatible with that of the RMT. The RMT used to be the majority train drivers’ union on the London Underground, but since the 2015 strikes against Boris Johnson’s administration in London, I think ASLEF have gained a majority amongst train drivers. Historically, they’ve been the majority drivers’ union elsewhere.

EDSo there is a little bit of RMT wanting to be the big main union in the rail industry?

TWWhenever you design or make a change to the way a rail vehicle is operated, you need to refer to the policies of ASLEF to see if this will work. When making an engineering decision, there are all sorts of things you have to take into account – like does it physically work, can you afford it, etc. And then there’s legislation you need to consider: London Underground has some terrifying documents outlining engineering standards! So you need to go through all these considerations and regulations that are imposed top-down by the government. But a lot is also imposed from the ground, through ASLEF. Because in the end the train will ultimately be operated by someone who is likely to be represented by ASLEF. So, in order to pre-empt knowing whether or not drivers are going to actually get on with it, listening to ASLEF is essential.

ASLEF are often invited onto manufacturing sites, where they haven’t got any members or anything. The point is: you bring the ASLEF people on so they can pre-agree before certain work takes place. If there’s something they think is absolutely unacceptable, that under no circumstances drivers will put up with it, then they can let you know at a point where it doesn’t cost you any money to eliminate it.

I’ll give one example, from when I’d been looking to change the way in which an incredibly specific part of train consoles works. To put it simply, it was something to do with electrical power modes, something to tell you whether you were taking electricity out of a battery or out of overhead lines. My idea was to have red and yellow-coloured lights to signify this. The ASLEF rep told me there was no way. ‘Have you any idea how annoying it is to drive at night with coloured lightbulbs in your face?’, they told me. They wouldn’t put up with it! ‘If our drivers were told to drive at night, in the dark, with this yellow light flashing on the dashboard in front of them, they’d say: fuck off, we’re not doing that!

It was a pain in the arse, having to redesign the thing, but at least I knew before delivering the parts! But that’s how fundamental ASLEF is to the rail industry. It has that level of leverage where it actually has a say and a veto in certain things about how trains fundamentally work.

EDIt’s interesting hearing you talk about the leverage ASLEF drivers hold. Could you expand a bit more on this?

TWBoth unions have different forms of rank-and-file organisation, and broadly have leaderships to the left of the trade union movement; however there are obviously tensions within the unions and their activist base. Tensions and differences with the RMT are evident here; the RMT wants to be the expansive union through which all workers organise and face the bosses. Tension is also evident in the unions regarding their long-term relationship to the Labour party, having to potentially negotiate with a future Labour administration of transport, and being reticent about having open conflict with them. For example, unions have been giving Sadiq Khan lots of slack over the years, even if he’s implementing the Tory’s attacks, particularly regarding pensions, on the London Underground workforce. My attitude is let Transport for London die on its arse. Make it the Department of Transport’s fucking problem.

At some point, for both the RMT and ASLEF, there will be a crunch point – they will have to represent their members’ interests and say fuck off to City Hall and Transport for London. But that’s easy for me to say because I’m not bound up in the political industrial machine that ties those trade union bureaucracies to the Labour Party. That dynamic exists, and if we don’t have an activist left within the worker movement and unions, things can go really wrong.

Having said this, at the moment, anger is focused on the government, and the union leadership has been stepping up the rhetoric and basically saying that this is a deal with the government, that they have to negotiate. So I think, right at this instant, there is no massive discord between members and the leadership. But, as I say, without pressure from below, I think it would have been quite easy for them to start looking for ways out of the dispute. I was worried towards the end of last year that exhaustion would set in on the part of rail workers - but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

There is also a difficulty with workers trying to take action against a clear target. Workers are employed through a patchwork of many devolved companies (the Train Operators, for example), so the government can hide behind the fact they don’t directly employ them. But these are really shadow companies. They had the appearance, or at least some of them did, of being actual functioning companies right up until the pandemic happened and revenue streams went down. Don’t worry though, there’s still shareholders collecting money at the end of the day, but the actual backing of this is entirely publicly owned.The government sends them to negotiate, but it’s clear who really is in power. The government and Department of Transport, for example, have been playing a double game where they try to claim they’re not responsible for the industrial actions. At the same time, they send the management of these pretend companies into negotiations with the unions, whilst telling them under no uncertain terms that they are not actually allowed to actually negotiate with them. If you want any information, incidentally, about those devolved companies, I strongly recommend you read the book Derailed by Tom Haines-Doran.

The government is most likely going to just wait everything out, and the question is what happens over a period of time. If March 15th is an enormous day of action, with loads and loads of workers out and clear public support (which there is, by the way), and this continues to pile pressure on an extremely weak government to the point it starts to buckle, then who knows? Maybe some serious gains will be made. I think it’s more likely the Tories will say ‘fuck it, we’re not gonna win the next election, let’s just let everything go to the wall’. And I think as the year goes on workers will begin to question everything, and ask ‘what are we actually accomplishing here?’, and one possible response will be tension with the leadership.

Long, drawn-out disputes can become very repetitive processes of striking with what feels like diminishing returns of impact. So, at this stage what you are really asking is: what should we do? I think it’s most important to go to picket lines and get to know the strikers. Most of these people involved in these strikes haven’t been involved before. There will be a few people in their late forties/fifties (not much older due to lots of voluntary redundancies in recent years), but apart from them, most workers will be learning on the fly. And we clearly don’t have a left that relates to this, who are keyed into these things. On social media, the left are still blathering on about Corbyn. But no one cares!

EDSo both the RMT and ASLEF have been built in similar contexts, in the same industry, although with very different strategies. Both unions are engaged in long running disputes, where the membership is clearly committed to a fight, and have been taking joint strike action from last summer onwards. Considering a future potential Labour government with influence over a potential settlement, do you think there are growing tensions between the rank-and-file and the unions’ leaderships, or still a broad alignment?


EDYou’ve discussed how good rank-and-file organisation has to have a level of independence of trade union leadership, in order to be able to push hard against them when required. Do rank-and-file members have independence and autonomy within the rail industry unions? And what does that level of organisation look like in practice?

TWThe most interesting developments that we’ve had is that the membership of both RMT and ASLEF have been extremely solid in forcing the leadership not to conduct fake negotiations. That is, those sham, hollow negotiations with what are measurably fake employing units that do not make decisions, because their decisions are really made by the government, who aren’t sitting at the negotiating table.

It’s clear that the Tory strategy has been to wait these struggles out. They are desperate not to concede anything tangible to the rail unions. I thought that, by the end of last year, they would try to score some blows by getting the unions to agree to these deals. But the membership have not accepted it. So you’ve got a kind of crazy situation where both the RMT and ASLEF have been forced into a war footing. I don’t believe the leadership of these unions, which are as left-wing as any in the country, know where they are going at this point. They don’t have a strategy. They’re being pushed forward by their membership at this stage. The membership, absolutely rightly, are sticking to their guns, and do not wish to pay for what is ultimately a failure of government and state policy.

Regarding what rank-and-file organisation looks like in practice: in the end, it is relationships between people in the workplace. You can use tools – bulletins, for example, which are very difficult to sustain in the long term, but they can be incredibly useful points of intervention. Yet in the end these things are only ever a tool for what is really a question of can a rep or an activist in a workplace be confident they are actually articulating the best instincts of the people around them.

I think a lot of the left struggles to understand this, that these relationships are the most crucial thing. Some elements of the radical left think that having really solid organisation in a trade union is like having a sort of parallel union membership, like freemasonry, where you sign up to a left faction within the union. This is not it. You can find left factions in unions which resemble cliques. You absolutely don’t want this: cliques of mates looking out for each other and not seeking the broadest possible unity of the workforce.

That can happen anywhere. You certainly do get accusations, particularly with RMT, of factionalism – often this is just people chasing windmills, thinking that things are going on which frankly are not. But at the same time, I do think there is an important critique of the way the wider radical left organises within the trade-union movement, in that this can look more like a mutual aid network for people stitching up positions and getting posts they think they are entitled to, rather than actually winning gains and building power.

EDThe media has made quite a profile of Mick Lynch, and before him Bob Crow, in efforts to paint the RMT as a caricature of a quick-to-down-tools union. This is to some extent mirrored on the left, where some tend to lionise the RMT without thinking through the practical lessons. This can breed an image of them being somewhat exceptional, and their success difficult to replicate. How would you respond to those that paint the RMT as a special case, from both the left and the right?

TWThe reason the RMT has that image is that it so happened that a very successful left leadership formed around Bob Crow twenty odd years ago, taking quite a strong organising approach at a time when other unions were retreating. If you think back to when the RMT first became prominent, it was at the time when most other unions were doing a version of what you could call service model unionism. And RMT bucked that trend. It took an organising path because, you know, a left grew up within it. This has meant the RMT has been organising for a lot longer and it was hoped that privatisation would fundamentally and permanently weaken trade unions in the rail sector. But it didn’t - what happened was the RMT adapted with strong organising.

ASLEF twigged, basically, that because of the way that the railways were fragmenting, the employers were giving themselves a real problem with the availability of drivers. So they leaned in hard to craft unionism, essentially making the driver a position insanely difficult for management to take for granted. And as I say, they don’t have to have that sexy image that a lot of people in the radical left like in the same way, but they fundamentally are extremely good at what they do. So there’s a lot of good lessons to be learned. However, what absolutely isn’t happening is some magic that emanates from the top. It has been quite fashionable for a long time to just talk about the RMT as some kind of uniquely excellent form of trade union. It does have a particular image and identity of militancy, but beneath that all is the hard work of building such a culture and organisation. We should not mystify any of these things and pretend there is a special formula. It is a history of organising which other unions can do in their particular circumstances.

EDHow do you see the RMT and ASLEF as compared to the other unions? You’ve spoken about some of the key things which make them distinct already, and you referred to the turn to organising while other unions turned to a service model. Is there anything else you think is a key difference between the rail unions and other key players within the TUC more widely?

TWI think the key thing to say about the specialist rail unions, and what gives them their character, is that they managed to remain relevant while remaining relatively small. The key players in the TUC are all amalgamations: they are the result of a process of institutions that were in sharp decline during the Thatcher years, and had to band together to survive. Even at this point we couldn’t describe UNISON as following a service model. That again is an outcome of material change.

Within the rail sector, it was an ironic side effect of privatisation that the Tories, absolutely against what they were hoping to do, created a situation in which it was possible for trade-unionists with some initiative and ambition to, you know, do organising and to make it work. They didn’t anticipate there was going to be a Bob Crow, they didn’t see that on the cards at all!

It’s material conditions, as well. A few particular features around the rail sector meant that it remained an area where that organising was feasible, compared to so many other industries. Where that real big organising tradition got lost was quite simply from workplaces going through deindustrialisation. So, in a sense, I’m afraid what makes the rail unions different is actually a negative thing: it wasn’t possible for Thatcher to deindustrialise the railways. It wasn’t possible to break it down in the way that so much else was. And really I think that is the key difference, and that’s why it is wrong to just romanticise this stuff, because in the end it is about real life, and not about any kind of spiritual, higher connection to traditions of old. It’s great to remember those things, and important to not allow those traditions to be forgotten. But it’s not the case that the RMT just happened to have more people in it who remembered how to be trade-unionists. It was that they had people who remembered how to be trade-unionists and successfully identified conditions in which they could organise.

EDFinally, considering all of the recent developments, what are your thoughts on the current state of the dispute, and what do you think are the key tasks for rank-and-file militants to push the struggle forward?

TWMy assessment of the state of the dispute is that we’ve reached a deadlock where the government definitely doesn’t have any solution. To anything. You can see this very clearly if you follow the discussions that have been going on between the government and the Rail Delivery Group1 about where they want to take Great British Railways.2 What they come out with is just nonsense: ‘we’re gonna bring everything under one banner’, ‘we’re gonna get rid of the 55 million different fares’ etc. They claim they want to solve massive problems on the railways, but want to do it in such a way where they don’t lose the veneer of privatisation. But there is no such solution. There is no solution that does not involve losing the veneer of privatisation.

The fact is, if they want to get rid of 55 million different fares – the ticketing system that no human being could ever possibly understand – then they would need to centralise ticketing so that there is one ticket-giving authority. This makes total sense and would work well for everybody except the train operating companies. Because once you are in a position to issue tickets, you control revenue. And the reason why there are 55 million different journeys is because the train operating companies create silly irrational journeys, each with their own specific ticket, in a bid to hang on to as much of your ticket money as possible. So, when you go and buy a train ticket, the value of that train ticket is used as inefficiently as it possibly can be, to maximise profits for the various companies.

Now, the Tories have no way of resolving that… If they do have a Great British Railways ticketing authority that works something like TFL, that works out a standard ticket price, that means that those train operating companies then can’t maximise their exploitation of the travelling public. Given the only thing they’re there to do is price gouge, all these private operators will just fuck off! They’ll just go! I mean a lot of them are state-railways in other countries anyway, so they’ll just say ‘see you!’

So the Tories have no answers to any of this stuff. What they’re doing is just letting the service get worse and worse and worse. You can see this most clearly on Avanti West Coast – the RMT recently put out a press release revealing that services on Avanti West Coast have dropped 17% again. It’s getting to the point where trying to travel between London and Manchester is almost impractical. It’s almost like you can’t guarantee you can get a train from London to Manchester, that England’s first and second cities don’t have a reliable rail connection between them. That’s literally the situation. It’s a system not even fit for capitalism. It’s not even fit for their own economy.

And of course, this cannot be detached from the other things the Tories are trying to run into the ground: they have effectively run the ambulance service ragged, and are letting education and healthcare fall apart. They’ve let all these things fall apart. So I think there genuinely does have to be a bit of an escalation where we need almost like a 1972 moment, where we say: you don’t run this country. And I think if that doesn’t happen, and if the government does just run the clock later this year, we’ll see a bit of a wane in this struggle. Because our own side is gonna start getting tired. And you can’t blame them.

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  1. An association of private train operating companies and Network Rail. 

  2. The planned replacement body of state-owned Network Rail 


A train engineer

a union activist within the train sector