Exclusive: ASLEF leader warns strikes will continue until ‘spiteful’ government values train drivers

Mick Whelan on rail strikes and the minimum service levels defeat

Mick Whelan Aslef train drivers union leader

It has been one year since Mick Whelan the General Secretary of train drivers’ union ASLEF last met Transport Minister Huw Merriman, and 13 months since the Transport Secretary Mark Harper agreed to meet with him.

Train drivers have found themselves in a “political and ideological dispute” with the government, Whelan told LFF, as the union leader took aim at Westminster, blasting its absence and failed attempts to implement anti-strike Minimum Service Levels (MSL) legislation.

ASLEF members are back on strike this week in a rolling programme of walkouts across 16 networks involved in the long-running dispute over pay and working conditions.

The union leader slammed the “spiteful” government as he expressed pride after LNER, a state run train company, retracted implementing MSLs after the union announced more strikes on the operator, but he warned of future threats.

Speaking to LFF, Whelan said: “Noone has responded to us, they’ve been incredibly quiet over the failure to introduce MSLs, their flagship policy.

“But knowing the spiteful nature of this government I don’t believe they won’t try again.”

“We’re proud that the industry has backed off,” added Whelan. “We know that most of the companies themselves didn’t want to do it, they didn’t see how they could do it practically or safely.”

“We’ve been told by certain people that they were under massive pressure from the government to do it because it’s government policy.”

With disputes solved in Scotland, Wales and with freight companies, open access and Eurostar, with 14 pay deals made by the union, Whelan hoped a resolution could be made in this current dispute tomorrow, but laid the problem firmly at the feet of Westminster as strikes look likely to continue on. 

“We’ve got a government that seems to think, despite all the productivity and flexibility we’ve given over the last two and a half decades to make this industry work, and being paid for in our salaries, that we’re not worth the money we’re on, and they should be able to erode it at will over half a decade, and that’s not going to happen.”

“It’s the government who created this problem, and the government, when they couldn’t solve it, decided to change the rules and bring in MSLs,” said Whelan. 

Commenting on the safety and workability of the MSL legislation, Whelan, along with other trade union representatives, has highlighted numerous flaws. 

“Noone can tell us how to operate MSLs safely. Noone can show us its impact and, in our safety critical industry, if your focus is impacted for any reason you can’t carry out a safety related activity.

“Telling people who have voted for strike action that they’ve got to walk past their friends and the people they work with everyday and be forced into work, can’t not impact upon your ability to do your job.”

Industry insiders told Whelan it would take 60% of train drivers to run a 40% service, required under MSLs. However Whelan estimated that most days one third of the workforce wouldn’t be at work anyway, due to rest days and annual leave. 

More ‘creative’ methods of industrial action are being used, for example using staggered walkouts in order to keep up the profile of their dispute and make it harder to use the MSLs, with Whelan telling LFF, “we’ve planned 200 scenarios to make sure our voice is heard”.

As pay talks for the next year come around and previous years remaining unresolved, Whelan threatened the union could pull away from the Rail Delivery Group and instead start individual talks with the 16 train operators involved. 

“It was a voluntary arrangement, and because they’re not talking with us then what’s the point?”

“You can’t have a one-sided debate,” said Whelan, as he stressed that drivers have gone five years without a pay deal and their recent strike mandates remain strong, at 94-99% in favour. 

“We’ve still got a very heavy voice in favour of action because people are disgruntled”. 

Downing Street has announced disappointment that no companies had yet used MSLs and said the previous offer put to the union was “fair and reasonable”. While the Rail Delivery Group said there are “no winners from these strikes that will unfortunately cause disruption for our customers”.

Whelan rebuked the Tory narrative towards unions: “You get into strife and the government immediately paints you as Fred Kite out of a Peter Sellers film calling for a tea break every 10 minutes.

“When we have the most pernicious trade union laws in the world outside of Lithuania. Many times it takes us up to 2 years to get a strike.

“The government narrative is designed to be provocative. You can’t buy into it.”

Commenting on the argument used by Tory MPs that strikes were holding back the rail industry from ‘modernisation’ Whelan remarked “everytime they use the work reform I cringe”.

 “I’ve sat through the months and months of talks we have gone to and noone has wanted any reform, the first deal that they put out that we’d never seen, even though we’d been in talks for months, was if you give up every national and local condition you’ve got, and if you agree to never negotiation on behalf of your members for technological change we’ll give you a 20% pay cut and then they wonder why we didn’t put it to our members. 

“They wanted something for nothing.”

Train drivers across 16 rail operators will take staggered walkouts from Tuesday 30 January until Monday 5 February. With overtime bans from Monday 29 January until Tuesday 6 February. 

(Image credit: Andrew Wiard / ASLEF)

Hannah Davenport is news reporter at Left Foot Forward, focusing on trade unions and environmental issues

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