Third Day of ASLEF conference

19 May 2010

Some highlights of the second day of the ASLEF 2010 Annual Assembly of Delegates included • An address by Freight on Rail campaigner Philippa Edmunds • Condemnation of racial abuse • Criticism of TPWS • Protecting freight in the recession • Operation Black Vote


Philippa Edmunds from the Freight on Rail campaigning group (to which ASLEF is affiliated) spoke of the need to lobby politicians both in Westminster and Brussels to keep the issue high on the agenda. The new UK government was reviewing all spending agreed by Labour from the start of the year, and it was important that money earmarked for rail freight development was not cut.

She explained that as a partnership of unions, employers and transport campaigners, Freight on Rail was able to campaign in areas that others couldn’t. The main three campaigning strands currently were

· getting lines protected for terminals

· arguing for a strategic freight network and

· campaigning against mega trucks.

Philippa championed rail because of its central importance for a low carbon economy. ‘There are also great advantages to local government spending on roads. We need to continually stress to anyone who will listen the social, environmental and economic benefits of freight on rail.’

She also spoke of the need for

· a spatial planning framework, including getting planning permission for strategic rail freight interchanges and smaller terminals.

· lobbying for retention of grants - which are there to compensate rail for lack of level playing field. The previous government had committed £200 million in the years up to 2014 - and it was vital to ensure that money remains.

A key part of Freight on Rail’s current campaigning is its opposition to having larger and heavier vehicles – mega trucks – on our roads. If they are allowed it would lead to

· more trucks

· more pollution

· more accidents

· destroy rail freight

· extra road maintenance costs and

· huge infrastructure adaptation cost.

Finally she stressed the need to protect sites. ‘Releasing them from the railway is a very short sighted strategy,’ she said.


It is a sad reflection of our society that even in this day and age, people are still insulted and abused because of the colour of their skin – but it is a fact. This is why the union is demanding that every company not only has a bullying and harassment policy that protects members at all time in the workforce – but that they put mechanisms in place to enforce it.

Sadly the offenders are not always customers. At times work colleagues have been guilty of insulting behaviour – often in the guise of humour. ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ is one of the worse phrases a person can hear because it is so frequently linked to abuse.

The union’s black and ethnic members’ committee reported an instance where a dispute arose after a black member had been insulted on site by a colleague. The police were called, and arrested the victim. There have also been instances of disciplined rail staff who have expressed their prejudices on social networking sites on the internet.

The bottom line is that no one should have to tolerate bigotry or racism at work, or anywhere else for that matter. There is an obligation on all members to challenge such remarks and behaviour, be that linked to race, gender or sexual orientation. By our members creating an atmosphere where bigotry is instantly challenged we will make our workplaces more civilised places for us all.


While the union recognises the improved safety aspects of TPWS, this year’s conference insisted it would not accept any of our members being disciplined for TPWS activation without any other violation being involved. It was suggested that it was ‘the driver’s judgement versus their shoddy workmanship’ and quite seriously it was asked whether managers actually knew what the line speeds are. In some locations in south Wales there is evidence that Network Rail have speeds, but they are not passed to drivers.


The union is taking a number of initiatives to protect employment for all freight drivers in an ‘unprecedented’ crisis in the sector. Bernard Kennedy (Bristol) moved a call for

· a robust collation of all driver vacancies, recruitment strategies and manpower plans

· a careful examination of where overtime may be taking preference over the creation of vacancies and agreements over the length of working week

· making redundant freight drivers a priority in recruitment across the whole rail industry

· a close examination of all rest day working

· the union to enter pay talks seeking as a priority the securing of a clean four day week

· ensuring pay talks seeking a four day week as a priority, including 156 rest days a year

· seeking a commitment from all TOCs that they will recruit drivers initially form within the driving grade, and wherever possible within freight

· continuing to campaign for moving more freight on rail and the development of a dedicated freight line from Glasgow to the Channel Tunnel.

Speaker after speaker at the union’s conference stressed the enormity of the crisis in freight. Vice chair Tosh McDonald Tosh called it ‘unparalleled’ as in BR days downturns in freight could be offset against passenger traffic – which no longer applied. ‘We need to deliver proper conditions across the whole sector to ensure a level playing field in the sector.’ The crisis was across the whole sector and not specific to any individual company.

‘We need to explain to all our members exactly what we are doing, and why,’ declared Ian Smith of Glasgow, accepting that this process had begun with holding freight forums in Doncaster and Bristol. ‘We need to take all our members with us as we call for rest days only to be worked with ASLEF agreement, and only for recruitment and training. Sunday working was seen as a particular difficulty, with calls for it to be included within the working week of all companies.

But while several branches agreed that a set rest day pattern was a way of achieving more jobs, they also warned that members must have the right to decide their own fate – and were unlikely to accept clean four day weeks for no reward.

‘The two ways that we will revive freight in the long term are by backing freight on rail and convincing our members of the real value of a reasonably paid occupation that also offers time to enrich our lives away from work,’ said acting general secretary Simon Weller.


Simon Woolley, the Director of Operation Black Vote (OBV) and commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, urged delegates at ASLEF’s conference to

He said he’d founded OPV to encourage and inspire minority communities to engage in the democratic process, to register to vote, to become union activists, magistrates and school governors.

‘A multicultural society is the bedrock of a vibrant society and activism is the key to facing down the bigotry of extreme right: people who say although I was born here nearly 50 years ago I’m not British.

‘This is a society that by and large celebrates multiculturalism, but there are still racial penalties to being black in terms of education, employment, housing health and education. A report recently from the think tank IPPR said students are marked down for no other reason than the colour of their skin.

‘How would you feel if your child at ten couldn’t be sure if the teacher looked at him or her and said they were not up to it because of their prejudice? Angry, that’s what. I will not rest until my son, and your sons and daughters, especially daughters, are judged by their character and their heart.’

‘We have to be active!’ he urged. And when we are, we can see successes like the defeats of racists we saw in the recent election in Dagenham, Stoke and across the country.

Trade unionists, he said, are on the front line of ensuring out society affords decent hardworking people their basic rights. ‘You have to be a beacon to those who ask, ‘Who can I turn to?’’

Simon urged activists to make sure the Labour Party is strong, and insisted they should be the leaders, not ‘governed by suits in the Westminster bubble’. He wants to see an end to the ‘same old, same old’. He wants a new generation of activists, black and white, young and old, who don’t want to be politicians for the status, but to be magnets for change.

‘Let’s aim for the highest offices and break the shackles of not believing in ourselves,’ he urged. ‘Unshackle yourself from that lack of self belief. Aim high!’

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