First Day of ASLEF conference

17 May 2010

Some highlights of the first day of the ASLEF 2010 Annual Assembly of Delegates included • A debate on affiliation to Labour • A keynote speech from union president Alan Donnelly • An opening address from Rhodri Morgan, AM, former Labour leader in Wales • A statement of solidarity with BA cabin crews • A call for improvements to Women’s Refuges • A demand for fair and guaranteed pensions


The ASLEF conference has rejected a call to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and support a new Workers’ Party.

Andy Botham from Derby argued it was the wrong time to get out of the Labour Party ‘at the very moment that we have the opportunity to affect them’. ‘Surely it would be better for us to organise the worker’s party that we already have and ensure that it does what we want!’ And even at the very worse said Paul Keenan of Newcastle, ‘better the devil you know than live in the wilderness.’

Acting general secretary Simon Weller told the conference we needed to say to Labour, ‘We want you to start delivering on what we want and on the policies we have democratically agreed. It’s up to us to define what we want - and to insist that they implement it.’ He regretted that one aspect of disillusion in the party had led to a decline in the high level of political involvement for which the union was noted, and resolved increase political education to remedy this position.

Shaun Seymour (Feltham Electric) argued, however, that, ‘The problem is that the Labour Party we all want doesn’t exist. We’ve given all kinds of money to people who did nothing for us. Let’s not just shut our eyes. We are not only being railroaded – we’re being asked to pay for the privilege. They will do the same again. They are not interested in the working man – they’re interested in our cash.’

Hull delegate Gary Wareing said that over last six months, the Establishment had made it clear who it wanted in power by huge media backing for the Tories. ‘New Labour has failed and it has demoralised Labour members,’ he said. ‘Scratch a Lib Dem and there’s a Tory underneath.’ Gary said we need ‘an alternative to the capitalist parties’ not a situation where nine million people hold their noses and vote Labour. We are not in the party to implement capitalism in a nicer way than the Tories,’ he declared. ‘We want to turn the Labour party back to advocating socialism and changing the balance of power in favour of working people. We need our members to go into constituencies and get the candidates and policies we need.’

President Alan Donnelly drew a parallel with ASLEF members who, when their union was low, stayed in and turned it round. ‘If we can do it in our union, we can do it in our political party.’

‘Any Labour government is better than a Tory government,’ said Roy Luxford while Ian Smith from Glasgow insisted it is ‘better in the hall than outside passing out leaflets’.

The union’s Shrewsbury branch had called for support for the ‘Campaign for a New Workers Party’. Alan Griffiths said Labour planned to be a party of business and seemed to be – ashamed to be a party of workers. ‘My branch will not forget Mandelson accusing the postal union of ‘scare tactics for defending a public service, nor Labour ministers queuing up to condemn striking BA workers.’ He said that more students ended up in debt as a result of a Labour government elected on a pledge of ‘education, education, education’ and it failed to support public railways even though it was popular with the electorate.


ASLEF has much to be proud of, said EC President Alan Donnelly: but we don’t trumpet our successes in the way we should. If there is one thing we are bad at it is selling ourselves especially to the most important people – ASLEF members.

Alan began by extending the good wishes of all the conference to general secretary Keith Norman who was not able to attend conference because of imminent heart surgery. Keith had done much to strengthen the union and under his leadership for the first time in decades the union’s financial position was secure. ‘Keith wanted to come to this conference because leading a well financed union in Wales where he was born was to be the highlight of his career. We are all deeply sorry that that has not come to pass.’

Alan said that although there had been many changes over the previous twelve months, much remained the same. ‘A year ago we had a crisis in freight. We still have. We had company councils and officers striving to save jobs and conditions. We still have.’

He stressed the importance of the debate about the structure of the union. ‘Transparency is the key,’ he said. ‘That is the objective we strive for. We have made many improvements but the job is not done. It never will be done. We need to constantly review how our union works.’

Alan spoke about the need for confidence in elected representatives. In this area, he said, ASLEF representatives were streets ahead of our politicians. ‘The problem has been that many people have got into power and instantly forgotten where they came from.’ This need to change, he said. But he was also critical of the notion that political parties were ‘one man bands’. Much of the recent General Election had consisted of attempts at character assassination of Gordon Brown, as if he were the Labour Party, rather than its members and policies. ‘The election was more like the X Factor, more showmanship than political debate.’

‘The worse of all was the expenses scandal. It showed up something desperately bad in our system. We need more trust.’

Alan was naturally concerned about the election result. ‘The last time the Tories were elected it was on a slogan that ‘Britain isn’t working’ because one million people were unemployed. A couple of years later there were three million out of work. That is what we have to worry about. That – and the fact that the minimum wage introduced by Labour could become the maximum wage under this new government.’

The President said he couldn’t see the coalition working but it had exposed that fact that while the Lib Dems had talked about its concern for working people, ‘What they really want it to share the table with the capitalists.’ Labour, he said, needs to regroup and re-energise itself. ‘Mostly we need to get back into power with a government that will acknowledge the mistakes it made during this administration.’

Without wanting to be complacent, Alan said that the union can be proud of its achievement in resisting reductions in income and compulsory redundancies.

Alan also reported that the heat had – temporarily at least – been taken out of poor relationships with the TUC. ‘Our recognition at Croydon trams was challenged by its largest affiliate, and although it has not been resolved, it has proved that, despite our size, we are a powerful trade that won’t be bullied by anybody.’

Alan was proud of the growth of the union’s education programme and the success of the National Forum which was attended by ordinary members giving up their time to play a part in a transparent and open union.

‘We now have long term strategies to safeguard our finances,’ Alan said as he reported that the union’s head office had been sold. ‘We are looking for a more suitable building less costly to maintain,’ he said. ‘But it has to be the right one for our union and we have a year to find it.’

He also argued that communications had improved and that despite criticisms the union does well. ‘It is all there if you want to access it,’ he said. ‘But you can’t force people to receive it.’

The President paid tribute to ‘the most important people in this union’ – our local representatives, all of whom were volunteers. ‘They face all kinds of problems every day of the year, and deal with them all,’ he said. ASLEF would be nothing without these men and woman, and Alan was pleased to see that the difficulties we saw in past years of struggling to fill positions appeared to have passed.

‘We have much to celebrate and much to sell about our union,’ he concluded, in all areas including its equalities work which was often more recognised outside the union – at the TUC for example – than within. ‘There has been some talk about our media profile being lower than other transport unions,’ he declared. ‘But we are not interested in appearing on TV shows and comedy programmes. The ASLEF general secretary went to Downing Street twice last year. Which would our members prefer?’


Opening the union’s 2010 Annual Assembly of Delegates (annual conference) Rhodri Morgan AM began by sending his best wishes – and those of all the Welsh Assembly – to Keith Norman, ASLEF’s general secretary whose heart problems means he is awaiting an operation. Rhodri, until recently the Labour leader in Wales, had had similar problems and hoped Keith’s recovery would mirror his own.

Rhodri said it was appropriate that we were holding our annual conference in Swansea because it was the location of the first passenger railway from Swansea to Mumbles. Opening in 1707, it pre-dated Stephenson by a century.

He said the new Prime Minster was visiting Wales that day and pointed to the strange situation where the two parties in government at Westminster were the two in opposition in Wales. He predicted ‘punch-ups’ between Westminster and the Assembly especially about rail electrification. ‘The line from Paddington is the last major high speed line in Europe not to be electrified,’ he declared. ‘I sincerely hope the government doesn’t look for its £6 billion savings in transport.’

Rhodri said the coming months would be a clash between the economics of Keynes – who argued that you increase public spending when the private sector fails to inject money, jobs and confidence into the economy – and the monetarists. ‘For all our sakes, I hope it will be the former, but suspect it will be the latter,’ he said.

He had led coalition government in Wales and said they can work, so long as there is mutual trust and respect - and the extent of cooperation is carefully recorded. He believed, however that the gap between the Tory and Lib Dem manifestos were so huge he foresaw ‘grave difficulties’ for the government in the future. More importantly, he stressed, is how Labour moved ahead and renewed itself.


The conference sent a message of solidarity and support to BA cabin crew staff, members of the Unite union, who were facing a ‘reactionary and bullying’ management in their current dispute.


The AAD called for the union to work with the Parliamentary group to lobby the government for more funding for Domestic Violence refuges which would enable the construction of specialist units to facilitate women who have older sons. Some women might not welcome near-adult males in their safe haven, but on the other hand it is imperative that women do not feel obliged to stay in an abusive situation if they can’t take their adolescent sons with them.

Allyson Jones from the Longsight depot said, ‘Twelve people will die this week while we are at conference as a result of domestic abuse – eight women will take their own lives because of domestic violence. Think of that - and demand that the government takes action,’ she urged.


Within London Underground there used to be an arbitrary two-tier system which involved blue collar workers not being able to enter the pension scheme until they were 25 while office staff could enter at 18. This was later changed to 22, and finally in 1989 it was brought into line with the terms of office staff. The union is calling for the right of our members to buy back years.

Gateshead branch’s Paul Keenan called for any bidder taking over a franchise to be obliged to make up any deficit in the pension fund as well as paying its normal pension fund contributions. It was an idea backed by Kings Cross. Howard Kaye said when franchises are put out for tender, owners are required to give commitments to stakeholders in the bid ‘but they forget that one of the greatest stakeholders is – us! It may make them think twice if they realised pension fund deficits needed to be guaranteed – but it is only fair and reasonable for our members.’

Acting general secretary Simon Weller agreed but said our immediate problem was to protect our existing conditions. Final salary pensions are deeply unpopular with employers (and the new government) and seen as a thing of the past, but ASLEF is determined to keep final salary schemes for new as well as existing members. ‘This is the only way we can guarantee it for all our members,’ he said.

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