We're still as proud today as we were then

2022-07-04 -
Array, ASLEF
A group of pickets holding a sign saying 'Buckton's Boys'

40 years ago today - 4th July 1982 - ASLEF drivers began an all-out strike which lasted until 18th July.

Mick Humphrys, Chair of Euston branch, marks the 40th anniversary of the strike:

The industrial action had initially begun in January and February with a series of one-day strikes (17 days of stoppage in total), followed by this indefinite strike, called for 00:01 on Sunday 4th July.

The reason for the industrial dispute was the British Railways Board's insistence on the introduction of 'flexible rosters' with a day length of seven to nine hours, resulting in the abolition of the 8-hour day, something which was described as ASLEF's 'crowning achievement' when it was won in 1919.

and the promise of a one-hour reduction in the working week. How this 39 hour week was to be implemented was not agreed at the time. Flexible rostering was number two on a list of 19 items the BRB prepared at the time to be discussed – I stress, discussed, not agreed – on productivity. Further items included an easing of our manning agreement and the introduction of the train man concept. 

With the May 1981 pay claim the BRB offered 7% which was rejected. A hearing with Lord McCarthy at the Railway Staff National Tribunal found in the union’s favour and instructed an immediate 8% plus 3% payable in November. That was rejected by the BRB, the first time a decision at the RSNT had ever been rejected by one of the parties involved. ASLEF, in response, threatened strike action and in August took the dispute to ACAS where a settlement was reached on the 8% being paid plus 3% in January 1982, backdated to November 1981. In a totally separate agreement at ACAS it was agreed that ASLEF would discuss certain aspects of productivity, flexible rostering being one. It should be stressed that it was ‘agreed to discuss’, with no commitment made to ‘reach agreement’.

But in late December 1981 as the BRB had made no progress with ASLEF on flexible rostering they informed us that they were not prepared to honour the 3% pay increase outstanding from the pay claim. That led to the strikes in January and February after which the BRB settled. It was agreed to take the BRB claim for flexible rostering back to the RSNT which, unsurprisingly, resulted in a finding in the board’s favour.

ASLEF rejected this decision, stating that the rostering proposals were unworkable. The BRB decided to implement flexible rosters at selected depots in the hope that they could divide the union and pick off the depots one by one. When the executive committee was informed of these plans they immediately called for the indefinite stoppage, which began on Sunday 4 July.

There was a smear campaign against train drivers, this union, and the labour movement in the Tory press and an increasingly hostile BRB began dancing to the tune of the Thatcher government which saw this as a chance to begin its attack on the trade unions.

The BRB sank to the lowest depths during its pitiful negotiations when, on Thursday 15 July, encouraged by Thatcher and her cronies, it stated its intention to close the entire railway network from 00:01 on Wednesday 20 July and to formally dismiss all employees still taking strike action. In response the Trades Union Congress meet with ASLEF and the other rail unions on Friday 16 and Saturday 17 July and, despite expressing ‘grave concern’ at the threat of dismissal as the ‘most serious departure from industrial relations practices by a public corporation’, failed to offer ASLEF and us, the strikers, any meaningful or constructive support.

The TUC went on to recommend that the BRB withdraw its intention to close the railway network and dismiss every employee after which the EC instructed members to return to work accepting the implementation of provisional flexible rosters.

The failure of the TUC to support a union and its members taking legitimate industrial action, and threatened with dismissal, emboldened Thatcher and the Tory government to take on the whole trade union movement – the miners were next, in the strike of 1984-85 – bringing in draconian anti-union laws which remain in place to this day.

In the aftermath of the strike, the once harmonious and pleasant atmosphere in mess rooms could quickly change with a negative attitude towards colleagues who, for their own selfish reasons, had not supported the strike; sometimes verbally but, more often than not, with silence. Many such ‘colleagues’ had worked excessive overtime during the period.

On the whole, however, the strike call and industrial action were fully supported by the vast majority of the ASLEF membership, uniting young (as I can testify, being a 19-year-old second man at the time) and old. As for management, flexible rosters did not produce anywhere near the improvement in productivity they had hoped but, at many depots, there was an erosion of the quality of diagrams and work content. This rostering ‘blueprint’ did, though, come to be the rostering format going forward and is still used by many companies to this day.

As we mark the 40th anniversary of the strike I know that the overwhelming majority of all those involved are as proud today as they were then to have supported their colleagues and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers & Firemen.

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a letter sent to employees on the eve of the 1982 strike which threatened 'if there is a strike you may well not have a job to come back to'
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a group of people on a picket line outside a station