Exclusive: Aslef leader warns train drivers’ strikes could ‘go harder’ amid government radio silence

'If there’s no willingness on the other side to talk to you how do you resolve that? I can’t force the government to come into a room with me.'

Mick Whelan Aslef leader train drivers union

The leader of the train drivers’ union has said there is a “temptation to go harder” with industrial action as the government maintains radio silence in the ongoing bitter dispute over pay and conditions. 

After 22 months of industrial action so far, strikes by train drivers are likely to rumble on throughout the year as Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan blamed a “failing government” who seem to hold no interest in solving the dispute. 

Referring to the ongoing dispute, Whelan told a group of journalists he had never dealt with “such duplicitous, deceitful people” in his life and said he is currently not dealing with the government at all, as ministers refuse to negotiate.

Train drivers haven’t had a wage increase in five years and the union is looking to secure a pay rise for the previous two years. An initial offer was rejected by the union, which it said represented a 3% pay cut and the ripping up drivers’ terms and conditions. 

The dispute concerns 14 different rail companies represented by the Rail Delivery Group and controlled by the UK government.

Comparing the dispute to others he’s worked on during his 13 years as general secretary, Whelan said he’d “never seen such a massive disconnect, and it’s not an industrial one it’s a political one”.

“The reason we don’t go on strike very often is that we often threaten something, go and meet with someone and find a way forward. That dialogue isn’t taking place at all,” Whelan said. 

“If there’s no willingness on the other side to talk to you how do you resolve that? I can’t force the government to come into a room with me.

“Since we realised this is a political dispute we decided we had to be in it for the long haul. Because a government has infinite resources and workers don’t.”

However he suggested  the union could “go harder” and said there was “no guarantee”  it will be one day’s action, instead mirroring recent strikes to spread it over five, six or seven days with an overtime ban. 

“There’s all sorts of things we could do now, I’ve got a playbook with all these scenarios.”

Whelan stressed he’s never known anything like it during his career in the trade union movement, and said he would much rather work with companies than against them, but that it was a “strike of the government’s making”. 

“I don‘t understand why they hate train drivers,” Whelan said. “Before there was even any disputes, they’d already started running these threads in a lot of the media about greedy train drivers and we weren’t in dispute and hadn’t even asked for a pay rise.”

“Their hoping to burn us out,” he added. “We’re not the villains in this.”

He stressed it wasn’t the train drivers’ strike deterring people from using the railways, but soaring ticket prices, as he argued that progress on the railways was going backwards under the Tories.

“We are going backwards, I spent the last 20 years trying to regrow the railway and argue for a greener railway,” said Whelan.

“We’ve never had a proper investment profile in the UK, not just for rail but for all the things we do. You need a multi-parliament vision to deliver on big projects. 

“So for rail in particular you need 10 to 30 years to look at what you’re going to do for future generations as they have done in Spain and elsewhere. We go parliament to parliament, that’s why projects like HS2 over run and get destroyed.”

Members of the union have continued to vote overwhelmingly for strike action. The union is holding its annual conference for delegates in May where members can have their say on the strike strategy, likely to dictate what future strikes could look like. 

More strike dates by train drivers are likely to be announced very soon, the union received an overwhelming mandate for strike action in December which under current legislation lasts for six months. 

(Image credit: Aslef)

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

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