Southern Railway’s strike tweet highlights the new, nasty era we’re living in

Another happy day on Southern. Image: Getty.

It’s awful business practice to slate your staff to your customers – so why is the already-beleaguered Southern Railway doing exactly that? The short version is, it’s part of a fluffy Blair-era private-public partnership company whose business model is obsolete in today’s nastier world – it just hasn’t realised it yet.  

On top of the problems with its service that has led to cuts and delays all year, the firm is also the target of a strike by RMT union conductors this week. On social media, Southern decided this would be a good response:

You can click through the tweet to read the reactions, but suffice it to say that they were less than positive. If you're in a customer-facing industry and you bash your staff to your customers, whatever the context, you end up looking at best incompetent, and at worst treacherous and incompetent. So what's going on? 

I wrote about the background to this dispute here in August, and not much has changed. Quick précis: the model of train operation where the guard is in charge of the doors and sounds the starting bell (as distinct from being a person on board who makes sure passengers are safe, sells tickets and helps evacuate in an emergency) has been obsolete for decades. Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which operates Southern-branded trains, already has driver-only operation on some of its routes; it's trying to introduce it on more; and RMT conductors are going on strike because they disapprove, citing a risk to passenger safety.

The safety claims don't have any real merit. Swathes of London’s network are already driver-operated, as is the Underground; these have no difference in safety record from areas where guards operate the doors. The RMT know this, and are pretending a dispute which is about protecting their members' jobs and conditions, is about protecting the public.

Even though rail is a very safe transport mode, and UK railways among the world’s safest, the fear of a train crash haunts public imaginations (not helped by incidents in countries that use technology that was removed decades ago in Britain, such as Italy and the USA). We’re bad at assessing risk versus cost, especially when rare failures are horrific. Many people are unhappy about unions standing up for their members’ pay and conditions – so public safety is an understandable path for the RMT to tread despite the total absence of evidence.

That doesn't explain Southern's response, though. As a company in a heavily unionised industry, you can be a hard-arsed union basher like Rupert Murdoch in the 1980s, or you can work with the union and be liked by your customers. You can’t do both, and saying “poor me” when you've allowed a strike to happen doesn't cut it.

To understand why the response has gone wrong, you need to understand the status of the GTR business. Although it's operated under contract by a private company, it doesn’t make commercial decisions and keep fare-box profits like Virgin Trains. GTR is paid a fixed operating fee by the Department for Transport (DfT), and it does exactly what the department tells it to do.

Rail frontline staff costs have risen (and strikes fallen) in the 20 years since privatisation. That’s because commercial franchisees are incentivised to meet staff demands rather than lose revenues and attract penalty payments. This isn’t the biggest driver of increased costs on the railway, but it is still a significant one.

The new minister in charge at the DfT is far-right attack dog Chris Grayling. At the time GTR's contract was signed, the minister was Patrick McLoughlin, an ex-miner who worked throughout the 1984 strike. Their attitude to staff costs and the merits of unions is, well, not hard to guess.


So, how does this fit with the Southern tweet?

GTR signed up to do what they were told, and they're being told to be bastards. There are outsourcing companies who specialise in this job; most obviously G4S and Serco, who've seldom met a jail or a migrant detention centre they wouldn't take on for a fee.

But that isn't how UK train operating companies have worked since privatisation – they're rooted in Richard Branson and Tony Blair's world of post-ideology capitalism, where everyone smiles and there's enough money going around to grease everyone’s palms. Southern was run as a traditional franchise by Govia before GTR was created, so its corporate culture (white collar types who're obliged to believe in brand values, rather than skilled union types who just drive trains) reflects that world.

In this context, Southern's tweet – some marketers not understanding why the RMT has to be so horrible, when they're only doing what the government has told them to do – sums up the change in era. The Blairite fluffy model is dead, replaced by savage cuts and Thatcherite union battles.

The government knows we're in a newer, nastier era. The RMT knows it, and the people who responded angrily to Southern's tweet know it. The folks at Southern probably need to learn it, quick-sharp.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.