First North Western - A Background

09 February 2005

Background

FirstGroup's operating profit from its 3 train operator's for the year ending 31 March 2002 was £66.8 million. In contrast, Drivers employed by First North Western (FNW) are amongst the lowest paid in the railway industry. The principle of equal pay for work of equal value lies at the heart of this dispute. 

Despite any management propaganda you might read - FNW Drivers are seeking no more than fair pay and comparability with their colleagues performing the same job but for other train operating companies.
  
   
‘Fat Cat' Salaries

FirstGroup is happy to pay huge bonuses and make golden handshake payments to its directors, but not to reward those who provide a service for the customers who pay for them. It is worth recalling the following information, the next time someone suggests this dispute is about anything other than fair pay.

The example of Tony Osbaldiston (former Deputy Chief Executive of FirstGroup) highlights the differences between the ‘fat cat' payoffs for rail privateers and the salaries of railway workers.

After seven years with FirstGroup, Mr Osbaldiston received a final payoff package worth £1 million, comprising a staggering £680,000 for ‘accrued and prospective salary and bonus entitlement', a further £193,000 in pay, and a further £101,000 in lieu of pension contributions.

Mr Osbaldiston was not unique amongst FirstGroup managers in enjoying such six figure sums. In 2001, four other FirstGroup directors shared bonuses totalling £387,000. Highest paid amongst these was Chief Executive Moir Lockhead who enjoyed a total package amounting to some £494,000.

 

‘Fair Deal'

Negotiations for a fair deal for our members on FNW began in February this year. ASLEF negotiators recognised the pay disparity that existed for FNW members and sought an early start to Pay and Retention negotiations. The talks aimed to tackle both the widening earnings gap between FNW members and their colleagues, and tackle the retention of experienced professional Drivers who were leaving FNW to take up employment for better salaries at other companies. The ASLEF pay claim was formulated with these factors in mind, and ASLEF negotiators sought an early conclusion to the talks.

Unfortunately, the response to the ASLEF claim was a derisory offer and intransigence on the part of the company that left no option other than to ballot FNW members for industrial action. 

Such was the dissatisfaction with the offer that in July of this year, 87.8% of ASLEF FNW members voted in favour of strike action. At this point, faced with such an overwhelming majority and such a visible display of dissatisfaction, common-sense would have dictated that FNW enter into meaningful discussions to meet the aspirations of FNW members. 

Regrettably, this was not to the case, and the actions of FNW from this point onwards have served to exacerbate the dispute.
  
  
‘Bad Faith'

On 26 July, last minute talks reached agreement; suspending 2 days strike action, that would have disrupted the high profile Commonwealth Games. FNW members were promised a three-year salary progression, productivity items that were under discussion would be concluded, and the public and Games were spared potential travel disruption. This was an example of good faith by ASLEF and FNW members and suggested a positive resolution to this dispute.

Unfortunately, this was not to be the case and FNW management immediately reneged on their part of the deal. Scarcely had the ink dried on the 26 July agreement, before FNW unilaterally added some 25 productivity items to the negotiations, some of which appeared to be deliberately provocative. This included the now notorious Item 24 – Litter on Trains, which required Drivers to double up as litter collectors. Under these circumstances, the agreement broke down and this was followed by a scurrilous publicity campaign to discredit ASLEF.

Subsequent attempts to resolve the dispute through independent arbitration have been wrecked by FNW management who, in the words of the independent arbitrator, ‘flatly refused' to meet and negotiate with ASLEF. Given that ASLEF agreed to these talks following a request from FNW, it is clear that the request was another bizarre attempt to impede the progress of the negotiations. 

Regrettably, eight months after the onset of talks we are no nearer to a settlement. The conduct of FNW throughout has been typical of a company with a well earned reputation for duplicity – a company who apparently care everything for their image but little for the travelling public and even less for their Drivers. A company who treat their employees so poorly and with such little respect that there is virtually a queue to get out.
  
   
‘Dirty Tricks'

One of the lowest points in this dispute has been the attempt to intimidate members through the threat of disciplinary action.

In September, a letter was sent to a FNW member, purporting to inform him of his attendance on a course but containing the phrase; ‘…if you try to influence the trainees in any way you will be removed from the course, then disciplinary action will be taken.' This blatant attempt to intimidate a union member and curtail free speech marked a new low for FNW and has been widely condemned by all that have seen it.

Elsewhere, senior FNW managers have resorted to unwarranted and unprofessional attacks on the integrity of individual ASLEF negotiators – a less than mature approach to positive industrial relations.

Thankfully, none of FNW management's antics or propaganda has undermined the resolve of FNW members, or the support from the public for their cause. 

 


Strategic Rail Authority

Throughout the course of this dispute, the rôle played by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) is slowly beginning to emerge. 

Unfortunately, rather than assist in finding a resolution to the dispute, SRA Chairman Richard Bowker has chosen to simultaneously be very vocal in his criticism of FNW members whilst publicly insisting upon remaining aloof. ASLEF have sought an urgent meeting with the SRA, seeking a way forward. 

ASLEF General Secretary, Mick Rix, commented on the part played by the SRA, saying: 

‘There is no possibility of this dispute being resolved while FNW management have their hands tied in terms of what they can offer by the SRA. It is time that Mr Bowker stopped carping from the sidelines, stepped out of the industrial relations shadows, and actually helped resolve this dispute. At present, the SRA is playing a wrecking role.' 


Conclusion

ASLEF has made it clear to the company that we are seeking, and will continue to seek a negotiated settlement in keeping with the professional status of our members. 

ASLEF and FNW members have enjoyed great solidarity from the majority of the public, fellow trade unionists and other workers. We thank you for your messages of support and expressions of solidarity.

The strike dates have been scheduled for weekends, in order to minimise disruption to commuters and to let the public know exactly what service may be expected. 

Strike action is not something we take lightly. In the interests of all concerned, we can only hope that the company and the SRA will begin to devote less time to playing games and protecting their public image and concentrate instead on the serious matter of resolving the dispute. 
 
   
Strike Dates


ASLEF members on First North Western will be withdrawing their labour as from 00.01 hours to 23.59 hours for a period of 48 hours on the following dates,

Saturday 28 to Sunday 29 September 2002,

Saturday 5 to Sunday 6 October 2002,

Saturday 12 to Sunday 13 October 2002,

Saturday 19 to Sunday 20 October 2002,

Saturday 26 to Sunday 27 October 2002,

Saturday 2 to Sunday 3 November 2002,

Saturday 9 to Sunday 10 November 2002,

Saturday 16 to Sunday 17 November 2002, and,

Saturday 23 to Sunday 24 November 2002.

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