Whatever we do, we shall do it together in unity

2021-07-01 -
Array, ASLEF
Mick Whelan wearing a suit and ASLEF tie

Mick's Column: July 2021

We have, since March last year, faced unprecedented times and shown our duty, as key workers, to our communities and nation, and kept the country running, along with many others, for a greater good. 

Now you might think that this would be recognized by the government in Westminster but apparently not; it has, instead, become an agenda for cuts and change. Yes, we recognize that the privateers were bailed out, and some were not, depending on which figures you use, and money has been put into the industry, in necessary support, over the course of the pandemic.

But the model was collapsing before Covid, which exacerbated an obvious need for greater subsidy, in the government's determination to keep private interests in our industry. All the things we have identified about the waste, duplication, and failings of the privatized rail network since 1993 are the rationale behind the Williams review to which the Transport Secretary has now added his name.

"whatever we do, we shall do it together in unity and solidarity"

Much will be defended by 'the impact of the pandemic' but we have already seen two NRCs awarded, without competition, and no one has been able to explain to me in sensible terms why we need the private sector to run trains when the revenue risk now falls on the public purse. I remain of the long-standing view that transport, as one of the four factors of production, getting goods and services from A to B, generating business, industry, and tourism, even when run at a paper loss, creates genuine money in the economy for the good of all.

At a time when the world is endeavouring to save the planet, and create a better future for our children, long-term investment in our railways should be automatic as, on this small crowded island, the only way to achieve these aims is the mass transit of freight and people. But this is not, apparently, the view of the government.

We accept that people may work differently, and footfall and capacity have to be regained, but wholesale reductions, allied to recent arbitrary fare increases, are not going to make us attractive, or drive the green agenda.

So we face uncertain times, with statements about removing duplication of services, wages being aligned to market rates, reductions in capacity and services, and discussions on headcount. This clearly leaves us with decisions on how we best protect our grade, and our industry, because these are government-led processes and decisions and, in a post-covid world, no one will care that this is an ideological and dogmatic attack on trade unions and public transport.

There are industry talks to take place (again depending which figures you look at) on the £2 billion shortfall or Williams' £1.5 billion per year of savings the government says need to be addressed.

It is our belief that sitting with the industry, and the other unions, at this time is the best way to protect and determine our own futures through what is known as the Rail Industry Recovery Group. There are two other options: pretend it isn't happening and hope it goes away or leave it to the Treasury to demand percentile cuts across the board; neither of which offers any protection so can't be countenanced. The talks will not be one-way traffic.

We have aspirations on reducing the driver's age, staff travel, protecting pensions, EJRA, and other issues we would hope to achieve.

Looking at our age demographic, and the number of drivers due to retire over the next few years, those hoping for severance may well be unlucky.

We went through a decade of government-led austerity relatively unscathed and we do not forget everything we have paid for through productivity and flexibility which is ours and no one else's. Nothing has been agreed other than that we will participate; it would be naive not to but, whatever we do, we shall do it together in unity and solidarity.

In the interim we are still in the throes of a worldwide pandemic with liberation, or freedom day, once more delayed, deferred, or just messed up. I do despair of the rhetoric as I believe it does a disservice to those who lost their lives - many, I believe, unnecessarily. Sadly, as I write, cases are rising among younger people and the variants are of concern.

Vaccination is a success albeit the only one the government has a right to take credit for. We should not rush back to business as usual - safety must be paramount - but further economic protection must be put in place for those in society who need it most. The real test will not be how we as a nation dealt with the pandemic but how we deal with the aftermath.

Please stay safe.

Yours fraternally,

Mick Whelan, General Secretary