David Behrens: Strike blow for passengers caught between union and railway

Last Friday, I arrived at work on time and left by train, eight hours later and one hour ahead of schedule. This despite the fact that the train guards on Northern were on strike and, if you believed their union leader, Mick Cash, were supporting it as solidly 'as a rock'.

Passengers continue to be disregarded by the railway industry.

The early finish was my sole concession to the industrial action, because the evening services had been cancelled. Otherwise, I defy a casual observer to have noticed that there was a strike at all.

If ever a union undermined its own cause so comprehensively, this was it: a strike that served only to demonstrate that the presence of its members was unnecessary. Desirable, possibly; necessary, no.

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It wasn’t as if it had learned by its mistakes. This was the third such strike by the RMT and the effect of each has been the same.

Yet it is a dispute in which it has been the union, not the train company, that has taken the initiative. There has been little defence offered to the RMT’s claims, repeated and often, that it and the travelling public are of a single mind, that safety is at risk.

Indeed, the only counter argument I recall having read is one I wrote myself a few weeks ago.

So let’s set the record straight: No-one on the sidelines has a grain of sympathy – not for the strikers and not for the employers.

Northern is in this situation because the government has made driver-controlled operation of some trains a requirement of its new contract.

At issue is whether the driver or a guard opens and closes the doors. The new policy is for drivers to do it, but the RMT, most of whose members are guards, argues that this will endanger passengers.

Because the propaganda war has been so one-sided, I have heard people express sympathy for the guards, whom, they presume, will lose their jobs in a drive to put profit ahead of safety. But the RMT is being disingenuous, because guards are not being got rid of, just being given different things to do. This may involve a change of title but it will not put them out of a job. Indeed, the number of railway jobs is rising: Up 1,000 in a decade, on Northern alone.

What the changes will do is weaken its bargaining position. If its members’ fingers are no longer on the stop/go button, the trains will be able stop and go whether or not they are on strike.

The reason Northern has not seized the initiative is that, it says, it does not want to mandate new working practices; they should instead be the product of negotiation with the RMT. That is reasonable, but it is strikes, not reason that is this union’s lingua franca. It has been spoiling for one for years; indeed, in 2015 it had to be warned off by the courts.

Northern’s reluctance to drive the agenda doesn’t surprise me; it seldom does on anything. It does what it is required to do by its contract, and no more. The contract itself is its licence to do so, for it is a company with but one customer: the Department for Transport. The passengers are just the cargo the contract requires it to carry.

Its ticketing policy typifies the way it will lay down the law with passengers in a way it never would with the unions.

Train guards are unpopular –deservingly or not – because they are on the front line of an ambiguous offensive that is predicated on criminalising the passengers. They carry ticket machines, but will tell you that they are not there to sell you one because you were supposed to have bought before you boarded.

Last week, I took a call from a reader of this newspaper who had been, she said, treated like a common criminal and summarily fined for not having bought a ticket in advance, despite the machine being broken.

I will wager that you know someone to whom something similar has happened.

I went to Northern’s website to seek enlightenment on its policy but one paragraph in, I was already assumed to be its enemy. “If you are reading this page then it is likely you are seeking advice in relation to a fare dispute,” it said. The page was headed Debt Recovery and Prosecutions Unit.

Actually, no. All I’m seeking is a public service that is well enough managed to handle passengers and unions with the same equability.

Here’s an idea: Let’s derecognise the RMT and form a passengers’ union instead.