Striking rail guards have forced a major climb-down from the Northern rail franchise. But Tom Haines-Doran argues that questions remain over what happens next.
The RMT union has called off strike action by guards on the Northern rail franchise, after 45 separate days of strike action in nearly two years. But questions remain over whether this represents a complete and final victory.
The dispute centres on the Northern’s threatened imposition of ‘driver only operation’ (DOO), which would see the loss of guards on many services.
Despite considerable resilience by guards and support from others, including trade unionists, the left of the Labour Party, and passenger groups, the dispute appeared to be intractable, with Northern claiming that the introduction of DOO was an irremovable part of its contract with government.
DOO is a cost-cutting measure, which restricts access to services for those passengers reassured by the presence of a second member of staff. This is in the context of increasing assaults on women, BAME and other minority groups on public transport. Since many Northern stations are unstaffed, it would have a particular impact on passengers with mobility issues, who require assistance to board services: they would need to book a considerable time ahead of travel, rather than access the turn up and go service that is currently provided.
The RMT leadership have suspended planned strikes in February, following talks with Northern representatives at ACAS, claiming that they have received a guarantee from Northern that all trains will carry a guard until the termination of the franchise contract in 2025. This is a significant climb-down from Northern, and a fantastic example of workers’ power, against a private company whose financial losses resulting from strikes have effectively been bankrolled by central government.
But rank-and-file members and their supporters will still have questions about where the dispute goes from here. At the core of disagreements has been the idea that certain kinds of trains can operate without a second, safety-trained member of staff. Beyond looking after passengers onboard, the safety aspects of guard’s role rests on a number of technical competencies: for instance, they control the interface between doors and platform, manage evacuations and secure the train in the event of emergencies.
Northern have argued that freeing guards of these safety roles will allow them to spend more time with passengers. But union members know that this would allow legal operation of services without a guard, even if rail companies insist this will only happen in ‘exceptional circumstances’ initially. Therefore, the test for upcoming negotiations is whether they ensure that guards retain those technical competencies that cannot be transferred to drivers.
If they do not, there is a risk that Northern, or any successor franchisee, will attempt to roll out DOO on an ‘exceptional circumstances’ basis. In a privatised industry, rife with disjuncture, financial problems and reliance on overtime working, exceptional circumstances are all too commonplace.
Activists will celebrate for now, after perhaps the most protracted strike action in the history of the railways, but they will surely keep a close eye on pending developments.