Time for forward thinking not blind entrenchment

2021-11-01 -
Array, ASLEF
Mick Whelan wearing a suit and ASLEF tie

Mick's column: November 2021

The sins of privatisation, in other sectors, are coming home to roost. Who would have thought that, after all the calls for electrification, and decarbonisation, we would see electric freight engines mothballed as the companies cannot afford the cost of electricity? What does this do to real time delivery as, in some cases, the necessary speeds or paths cannot be achieved? What is the domino effect to other trains? And what will it do to service recovery?

This at a time when ships cannot land at terminals to discharge their boxes due to thousands of empty boxes taking up space. This is with already empty shelves and threats to deal with supply and demand over Christmas. Rail freight was in a period of growth and this should not be damaged. We had the ridiculous situation recently of trains full of fuel standing in yards and  sidings as there were no lorry drivers to serve the refineries to create space whilst the petrol and diesel pumps ran dry! We are 100,000 lorry drivers short.

The government offers three month visas to workers to help us out and are then apparently surprised when only 27 – or 127 – apply, depending on whether you listen to the Prime Minister or the Business Minister. It would be funny if it was not so seriously farcical.

Elsewhere we are seeing the government calling for a return to the workplace but doing nothing to facilitate or encourage it. Now is the time to make rail – and all public transport – attractive. This will not only help business, and employment in the UK, but also the leisure and retail sectors. Now is the time for forward thinking – not blind entrenchment.

We continue to see direct awards for concessions – as opposed to direct awards for franchises – so what has changed under Great British Railways? Not a lot! Companies are still declaring profits and dividends for shareholders out of the £14 billion put in to sustain our industry – an industry that should be protected and invested in centrally. We are campaigning against unnecessary cuts – or contraction – and we will continue to do so.

There is no reason for us to fear the future or the political decisions that will be made. Because we have been here before – and will doubtless be here again – and we will determine how much we engage in change. But we are clear that it will not be at our cost because unity and solidarity are not buzzwords but what you give each other, and the union, and if we have to stand we will – as we have always done – do it together.

There are rumblings out there that the bad managers are back in town and seek to justify their existence by either breaking our  resourcing agreements or attacking our futures through using aggressive discipline rather than the agreed CDP or other recognised processes. Goodwill is not weakness and those who exploit the partnership process developed under covid will feel the full wrath of this trade union. Without exception.

We continue, against a backdrop of uncertainty, to deliver for all our communities. As society opens up, with people uncertain for their futures, compounded by two poor decisions in the run up to Christmas. The first was to end the £20 uplift in universal credit which, for many, is an in-work benefit and will put children into hunger with families forced to choose between heating and eating, compounded by ignorant comments by ministers that ‘All they have to do is work a few more hours’. The second is the decision to end the furlough scheme. I do not envisage a growth in the economy as more businesses go under and more people become unemployed. Neither scenario will see more people spending money travelling on the railway or generating for the local or national economy.

This is the sixth richest nation in the world and the rumours I hear of a battle between the Treasury and other government departments over a return to austerity – a policy that economists agree failed in the ten years before covid – shows a lack of conviction as well as compassion. The only way forward is to invest in the future, to guarantee the real levelling up that society needs, not a punching down. Please be safe…

Yours fraternally,

Mick Whelan, general secretary