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Aslef train strikes don’t go far enough

Aslef members picket outside Euston Station in London. Credit: Getty

April 6, 2024 - 5:00pm

Another commute, another strike. As a new round of train strikes begins, it remains uncertain how far commuters and travellers can tell the difference between a strike day and a non-strike day. After all, given the endemic delays, disruption, overcrowding and general shabbiness of Britain’s railways, it can be hard to differentiate between a strike, a power outage, or a shortage of train staff. Where previously train strikes may have forced bosses to accept that their office employees would have to stay home and take the day off, the post-lockdown shift in working habits means there is now barely any such relief.

Taking into account the rise of working from home, combined with the decrepitude of Britain’s transport infrastructure, it is clear that the industrial strategy chosen by national transport unions — Aslef in the current round of strike action — is failing. For how can union action make a meaningful impact on the functioning of the economy, or on managers and railway bosses, when all the damage they seek to inflict simply dissipates into the ether of cyberspace and the broader national malaise?

While industrial strife may be trending upwards from its historic lows, the overall significance of this renewed labour militancy has yet to be determined. It is industrial strategy and political nous that will make the difference between reasserting the historic role of Britain’s workers and simply compounding the misery of living in modern Britain.

Thus far, the union leaders seem to be letting timidity guide them, avoiding a real battle in favour of these stop-and-start strikes, including one planned for the London Underground which was called off earlier this week, whose effect becomes increasingly tokenistic as time wears on. Worse, in the run-up to a general election the strikes simply add to a wider dissatisfaction with 14 years of Tory misrule, smoothing Labour’s path to sidle into power. While railway union leaders are supportive of Keir Starmer’s party — including Mick Lynch of the RMT, which has historically maintained more distance than others — an industrial strategy of symbolic strikes still makes little sense.

This is because, rather than forcing the Labour leadership to acknowledge union power, these strikes serve to erode Tory rule without exerting any meaningful leverage over Starmer’s party. They will not help to extract concessions for Britain’s workers from a future government, and will instead reassure the Opposition that unions will be compliant and quiescent under Starmer’s rule.

The new era of strikes offered a blessed relief after years of lockdown, showing a civil society re-emerging from national house arrest. It was also a reminder that there is still plenty of vital work in the modern economy that cannot be done over Zoom. This all now risks being lost, frittered away in figurative acts of protest that leave no lasting mark. Far from underscoring the role of Britain’s workers, it is an industrial approach more akin to the symbolic strikes pioneered by the Universities and College Union (UCU), which gouged members’ pay packets without damaging university managers.

While this strategy conformed to the outlook of middle-class professionals fond of virtue-signalling, it is less fitting for workers whose lives aren’t spent logging into online meetings. If the transport union leaders really want to show strength, they should ditch these pinprick strikes and mount an indefinite effort to paralyse the national railway system in its entirety. That would remind us all of the vital part played by Britain’s workers in sustaining the nation — and of the larger role they could play in national renewal if they were galvanised to do so.


Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago

Excuse my ignorance, but are these public or private sector unions?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The railways have all been privatised

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Kinda

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

Privatised
.with vast taxpayer subsidies

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

I wonder why the writer failed to mention that the average salary of a rail worker is almost ÂŁ46,000 (source: ONS) compared to the average salary of a qualified nurse ÂŁ37000 (source: Royal College of Nursing).
The current rail strikes are a disgrace, and the writer is thoroughly confused about both priorities and how unions can best serve their members.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

I wonder why you fail to mention they haven’t had a pay rise since 2019, when inflation has hit double digits in that time? Personally I don’t think 4% this year and next is a particularly excessive request

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I don’t know whether drivers deserve a pay rise or not but your point is fair and I don’t understand why it’s being down voted.

Yeah, and by the way, my instincts are that times are tough and fares are high but your question is valid.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

Saying that they earn more than nurses is simply an emotive attempt to portray the drivers as greedy for wanting their salaries to not go backwards in real terms. If we’re going to use that logic then no CEOs should get a pay rise until nurses wages match theirs.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

No one has a right to a lifetime job or ever increasing wages. Many of us have had to deal at some time with losing jobs and taking jobs at lower rates. This will not become less common and people need to get used to it. The way you deal with it is by maintaining your skills and being flexible.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

I don’t believe they’re asking for a lifetime job, they’re asking to not take a pay cut in real terms. Why should they accept less pay for doing their job?
Until the privatised rail franchises put their hand in their pocket (hahaha!) and pay for more automation then they need train drivers, and I don’t see why those drivers should have to take a pay cut each year in order to keep profits up

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

“If we’re going to use that logic then no CEOs should get a pay rise until nurses wages match theirs.”

Category error: the comparative logic only applies to public sector workers whose pay is negotiated as a bloc. Private sector salaries don’t come out of our taxes and are therefore none of our business.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

There are CEOs in the public sector as well as the private sector

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

I would agree that the strikes are too much, but not with your point about salaries.
Firstly, it’s not right to shame them on salaries of ÂŁ46k. Might be more than xyz sector, but on its own, not really extraordinarily high pay, and they are right to be aggrieved about no pay hikes under such inflationary conditions .
And I find the point about nurses interesting. ÂŁ37k is either way too low, for the nurses who are genuinely involved in frontline care and have to be on their feet all day, or too high for nurses who basically do nothing but gossip and paperwork.
In my experience of the NHS, the former category is significantly less than half of the total.

Desmond Wolf
Desmond Wolf
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

How do you feel about the ÂŁ38m rail firms gave to shareholders after being bailed out by the taxpayer during Covid lockdowns? Or the record profits enjoyed by private energy companies amidst a cost of living crisis? Ours is a country run for the wealthy not the working, and trade unions are about the only defence we have against the overwhelming push of our current form of capitalism towards less fulfilling and worse paid jobs and worse living conditions.
The relatively high salaries of those rail workers are testament to the effectiveness of strong collective organisation, not a reason to criticise it. By bringing our attention to their struggle they also highlight the problems faced by working people across the country.
Trade unions are a key reason we have a ton of things we take for granted today: maximum hours, protection against child labour, minimum wages, health insurance, the weekend etc. It is quite alarming how many people in this country who in abusing all trade disputes as signs of ‘greedy workers’ want to undermine the solidarity that has allowed us a greater share of the country’s prosperity.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 month ago

It is industrial strategy and political nous that will make the difference between reasserting the historic role of Britain’s workers and simply compounding the misery of living in modern Britain.

Crikey, someone’s on a downer.
Won’t be long before technology takes over these jobs and we get rid of this ugly socialist greed of the worst kind.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Robbie K

So those at the top can cream billions of pounds off the railways in dividends while failing to invest in maintenance and infrastructure, but it’s the workers who are greedy for asking for a pay rise that’s less than the recent rates of inflation?

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Even as a free market kinda guy, it may be that the trains are different. It’s a monopoly after all.
And, yes, in monopolies there is a tendency for benefits to flow to shareholders away from consumers and employees.
It still doesn’t mean I agree with you but your point is sound. I don’t agree with the down votes

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

I’m generally free market, but for some industries where monopolies naturally occur (public transport, utilities etc) it simply doesn’t work. When I turn the lights on that power has come from the same power station and down the same lines as all my neighbours, irrespective of which company is clipping the ticket on the way through.

David B
David B
1 month ago

The history of railways is the exact opposite of government monopoly. Until suddenly it wasn’t.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I am not even sure that trains are going to survive as a mass transit solution anyway – perhaps as a means of getting in and out of major city centres, but no more than that. The drive for electrification is having the odd effect that although it isn’t working yet for cars, it is working for scooters and e-bikes – to the point, in fact, that even bicycles are being outmoded now. This could well make the London underground obsolete as well. I am not sure where it’s all going, but it is clear that the planned intention that we’ll all either drive electric cars or use existing public transport isn’t going to work out that way. I suspect there’s a small-form transport solution imminent that is publicly controlled, doesn’t need drivers, doesn’t need its own tunnels or tracks, and doesn’t need to steal road space off other types of road user.

As far as the existing transport unions go, they must know that they’re living on borrowed time at this stage. Future generations will no more be prepared to pay the wages of a driver whose job could have been automated, than we would be prepared today to pay the wages of a chauffeur to drive our own cars. They are almost an anachronism now.

John Tyler
John Tyler
1 month ago

Yes, they need to be far more selfish than they are already.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

Given how the v rich have got even richer despite the Pandemic and the stagnation of the last 14 years, you can almost hear Mick Lynch pointing out this reality to some half witted media interviewer in simple language folks immediately grasp.
Knowing Lynch he’d also link his members fight with the fleecing of another public utility – Thames Water – by it’s shareholders with ÂŁ2.8b paid out to them last 10 years, and indicate i) he and his members can’t let that happen to the Railways ii) why isn’t the half witted interviewer interviewing a Thames Water Exec (or where is the Unherd article about this?)

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

I think you’re mistaken if you think there’s a lot of public sympathy for Mick Lynch and his crew.
Thames Water – as is so often, the failing you are pointing to here is really one of regulation. You can blame the “shareholders” as much as you like (that’s us by the way), but the root cause of all this is inadequate regulation. If you fail to recognise that and act on it, nothing will improve.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

It’s never the fault of neoliberalism is it? The fans of that ideology never admit its failings or where outcomes haven’t been what were promised all those years ago. Much like the communists it’s never the systems fault, it’s just that it hasn’t been tried properly yet

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I never said that the private companies were without blame. You imagined that part. They get away with what we allow them to get away with.
Getting back to the point – do you think the water companies are correctly regulated ?

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Clearly not. And it may say something more fundamental about fiduciary responsibility when it comes to public goods/monopolies.
14 years to have changed things.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Or 13 years for Blair and Brown. They were – and are – no better than the Conservatives. The Lib Dems didn’t exactly move the needle in 2010-15 either.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Indeed. The issue of fiduciary responsibility to shareholders being insufficient alone when it applies to public goods/utilities does go back some decades now with a belief that the private sector would somehow deliver better value left alone within existing legal frameworks. The current Govt has to though take more responsibility for non action as the problems have become increasingly clear under their watch. The added problem for them is it’s a difficult principle to swallow for those more Right leaning.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Chipoko

Fraction of CEO of Thames Water, or the ex Post Office CEO for that matter. Would you be able to share those too? Would you want to?

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Idiotic.
Aslef are in this for themselves and themselves only. It’s all about protecting a historically privileged position which current conditions no longer justify. It is nothing whatever to do with improving the condition of “workers” (note to author: we’re all “workers”) more generally.
In fact, any pound extra extorted by Aslef is a cost carried somewhere else in the economy for no gain in productivity – likely a negative sum game.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Why shouldn’t those drivers protect their wages? If they haven’t had a pay rise since 2019 they already suffered a hefty pay cut in real terms, why should they keep accepting lower salaries to do their job? Why do you class them being paid to drive trains as them extorting money from the economy?

Tim C Taylor
Tim C Taylor
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Why shouldn’t the ASLEF members cause misery to millions of people who earn less and work longer hours than they do? Why shouldn’t they put people out of work? Why shouldn’t they? Because they hold those less fortunate than themselves with total contempt.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim C Taylor

What other options do they have? Without the threat of withdrawing their labour do you believe the train companies will negotiate in good faith?

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Go and work in another job/industry like the rest of us would do if we wanted a higher salary. Or improve their skills in order to justify a higher wage.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Why? They’ve trained to become train drivers, if they want to move to another industry then they’re back to the bottom. Funnily enough most of us with mortgages and families to support can’t afford to drop back down to trainee wages for x amount of years while we gain experience and wait for salaries to reach the level they were on before.
The drivers pay hasn’t moved since 2019. I know for a fact that ticket prices haven’t been frozen for 4 years, and I’ll bet my house that those at the top haven’t endured a 4 year pay freeze either, so why is it the drivers in the wrong for wanting a cost of living increase?

Desmond Wolf
Desmond Wolf
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Exactly. This is naked class warfare and most people on here can’t see it.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

This is so Daily Mail.

Desmond Wolf
Desmond Wolf
1 month ago

Yes the sheer lunacy of the libertarian right – so often single males in my experience who see us as endlesslessly adaptable automatons living to service the needs of capital and not grasping the reality of having people in a specific place dependent on you and of needing to be part of a community.
My younger sister has similar discussions about her future with my libertarian uncle. ‘I’d like to stay in London where all my friends are but it’s too expensive’ Uncle: ‘go live in the North.’ ‘I want to be a teacher but again I don’t think I could raise a family on the salary.’ Uncle: ‘Go live in the North or become a lawyer.’ Now these decisions might have worked for the individuals recommending them but do we want a country of internal immigrants priced out of their true callings and communities?

Desmond Wolf
Desmond Wolf
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim C Taylor

they hold those less fortunate than themselves with total contempt.
Give your evidence. All their anger has been directed at the bosses and owners of the railways who gladly take our money (from government handouts when the railways aren’t working, to charging us rip-off prices when they are). They’re the ones with contempt for us.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

They could have had pay rises if they’d agreed to driver-only operation (as on the London Underground and many other networks) but they are wedded to their Spanish practices.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
1 month ago

The London underground is an urban trainset that has a stop every few minutes and is not any kind of example of how a national or regional service would work. I know a train driver operating a train where someone attempted to rape a woman. It was stopped by the guard. What would have happened on a driver only train? She would have been raped is the answer.

Anthony Taylor
Anthony Taylor
1 month ago

The whole of the UK has been going economically backwards for at least half a century. The unions are living in the past, as is management; and a large percentage of UK voters cling to fading dreams of lost greatness. The saddest examples of this are the endless late night TV programs on “We won WWII this way” and “We won WWII that way”. Leaving the EU was just an extreme example of this outdated attitude, handily used by useful-idiot Johnson and his venal cronies to sneak in and line their pockets.
With the technology now available the new Underground Elizabeth route could have been a major technological advance, with totally autonomous operation, but the unions had to block that, for obvious, but wrong-headed reasons. There is simply no joined-up thinking in the UK. For my entire life, unions and management have talked past each other. Now is not quite the hatred era of the 70s, but it’s getting close.
The endless railways fiasco (50 years and counting) is just another example (along with the NHS) of the UK failing to face reality and join the more enlightened countries in putting union representation in the boardroom of all major industries. And start co-operating, instead of fighting with each other.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Anthony Taylor

You can hardly blame the unions for TfL not making a new tube line automated. Ultimately if train companies want to pay (hint: they don’t) to upgrade the rail system to make automation possible there’s nothing the unions could do but fight to get the most generous redundancy payout they could for their members.
Why is the blame always aimed at those workers trying to make a living, when those at the top who have the power to actually invest in and improve the infrastructure and service get off Scott free?
It’s apparently not the fault of the train companies the service is poor and overcrowded, it’s the fault of the drivers asking for a pay rise less than the rate of inflation!

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

British small mindedness. Which has a sort of beggar thy neighbour attitude. It’s almost like tall poppy syndrome. People are happy to see everyone lose rather than support anyone who might get something, apart from those in charge/owners of course, who they defer to.

Will K
Will K
1 month ago

Are my Union dues meant to make a “meaningful impact on the functioning of the economy” or to get myself better paid? I’ve always assumed (and hoped) the latter.

Will K
Will K
1 month ago

2000 years ago, Britain was ruled by multiple Kings or Warlords, each taxing and controlling their own serfs. It seems to me that the Union structure is trying to return to that system.

Diane T
Diane T
1 month ago

If we compared the whole employment package, rather than just basic salary, (eg’s holiday entitlement, pension scheme, sick leave, sickness benefit schemes, overtime pay, free rail travel, uniform etc etc) rather than basic salary it would be a more realistic discussion.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago

This guy is actually advocating that some of the most privileged workers in in Britain today should go on indefinite strike.

We’ve all been affected by the cost of living increases, but certainly nothing the unions are going to do in gouging out pay settlements that are not justified by productivity gains, is going to address that issue.

This simply would not be tolerated in most countries in the world – and certainly not our major competitors. The strikes are carried out by a small minority of the workforce – and a privileged minority at that. They make everybody else’s lives more difficult.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
1 month ago

‘mount an indefinite effort to paralyse the national railway system in its entirety. That would remind us all of …the larger role they could play in national renewal if they were galvanised to do so.’ In speeding up the overdue introduction of driverless trains; great idea.