Southern Rail conductor checks a train at East Croydon station (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Unions aren’t to blame for the Southern Rail situation. They’re trying to help.
After much delay (it was completed in December) the DfT have finally published the Gibb Report into the causes of and solutions to the problems that beset the Southern Rail franchise. The report is complex and covers a huge amount of territory in its 166 pages. Gibb concludes that no one party is responsible for the poor state of the service on the line. Gibb is an experienced railway man, and agree or not, his view deserves a respectful hearing. However, his depiction of the role of industrial action requires some push back.
Gibb acknowledges that rail unions, and Southern’s owners Govia Thameslink Railways (GTR) have differing interests, in his assessment ‘None of the parties in the system share the same incentives or objectives.’ Clearly, in his assessment, the situation is complex, and the fact that it has not yet been resolved is not necessarily an indication of bad faith on any part. Gibb goes as far as to say:
“Many parties have, with the best of intentions, driven elements of change, all of which have come together at this time to cause the overall system to fail”.
Gibb states a number of times that there is no one actor responsible for the situation with Southern Trains. He also notes that the current system is insufficient to manage an increasingly busy service that already reaches full capacity at peak times. He even admits that offering an opinion on the industrial dispute is “outside of my remit”. However, then he proceeds to place the blame for the breakdown of this system upon the intransigence of the unions involved.
“At the time of writing this the RMT and ASLEF leadership, supported currently by their members, the railway people in conductor and driver grades, are the primary cause for the system integrity to fail, by taking strike action in their dispute over Driver Only Operation, declining to work overtime and generally not supporting and undermining the system integrity.”
This implies that RMT and ASLEF resistance to the proposed changes to the service are the product of pure intransigence and nothing more. As both parties have made clear numerous times, they have serious and sensible concerns about Southern’s proposed changes and these deserve more engagement than they have received here.
Gibb criticises unions for failing to engage with Southern, the Government and all the other actors involved in delivering the rail system:
“They should influence changes to the system through engagement, such as improving customer service, the safe despatch and operation of trains, and Driver Only Operation.”
There are a number of problems here. The first is the implication that unions prefer industrial action to engagement, customer service or the safe despatch and operation of trains. In fact these things are priorities for union members, and the use of industrial action is only ever a last result when it has become clear that decisions or policies of management undermine the fair, safe and effective operation of the service and when negotiation has failed. By calling for unions to abandon industrial action and “engage”, Gibb is essentially telling unions to accede to demands they consider unjust, unsafe or unsustainable without requiring management to “engage” with the unions serious and sensible concerns.
Finally, Gibb subtly tries to limit the scope of legitimate industrial action to pay and redundancy.
“The fact that nobody is being made redundant or losing pay against their wishes, that there will be more GTR trains operating with two people on board, and that safe Driver Only Operation is already extensive in GTR, the UK and Europe, just serve to make this dispute more difficult to comprehend, especially for the passengers.”
Gibb says GTR have a legal obligation to consult with unions on changes to working practices:
‘The role of overseeing the safety of the passengers and employees rests legally with the duty holder and employer, GTR, and regulation and oversight is the responsibility of the Office for Road & Rail. Both bodies are legally obliged to consult with the trades unions on changes to working practices, and the unions should fully participate in the consultation.’
The southern dispute has been caused by the company’s failure to consult on these changes or allow unions to participate in it.
Pay and redundancy are perfectly legitimate matters for dispute, but Gibb is right they are not at stake in this particular dispute. Instead of defending their pay and jobs, union members are striking to protect passenger safety and to ensure a sustainable and accessible service for everyone. The public have shown they understand that, it is a shame that Chris Gibb appears not to.