Opening day of ASLEF annual conference

14 May 2012

The ASLEF annual conference (AAD) has opened in the Liner Hotel in Liverpool. It will, with a special section devoted to the union’s rule book, last until the end of the week. Among items discussed today were the dispute in East Midland Trains, the union’s finances and some political issues. Guest speakers were Shadow Transport Minister Maria Eagle, and Ian Taylor who introduced ‘Rebuilding Rail’, a research document commissioned by the rail unions on the future of our industry.

Union President Alan Donnelly gave an overview of the union’s activity, beginning appropriately with a reference to the loss of our colleague and national officer Andy Morrison and the long-term absence because of sickness of London officer Steve Grant. He mentioned the satisfactory state of the union’s finances and touched on the advantages of the new head office building in Clerkenwell before moving on to talk about the union’s increasing external profile. He also praised progress the union had made on diversity and explained some of the difficulties in obtaining national staff travel for all our members.

‘Politics affects everything we do,’ he declared. ‘The union is much more visible and our new General Secretary Mick Whelan and our National Officer have much improved our relations with both other unions and national politicians. We held successful fringe meetings at both the Labour Party and the TUC where we didn’t have to round people up to get them in – which made a change!’

UNANIMOUS BACKING FOR EAST MIDLAND TRAINS STRIKES

The union’s conference gave unanimous backing to an emergency motion condemning East Midlands Train’s rigid and inflexible approach in the dispute over pensions, applauded those who were prepared to take on the company and agreed to send message of support to pickets.

President Alan Donnelly said, ‘This is an attack on all our pensions. There people are on strike for you and for your pension, not just for themselves.

‘If ever there was a fight worth taking on it is this one,’ he declared. ‘And we are ready for it. This is a test of our resolve and a dispute we cannot afford to lose. ‘

Mick Whelan said the company had been misleading in their comments after talks last week where they had demanded that the union drop basic principles in exchange for minor and temporary concessions, and he assured the conference that he would take the issue up with management.

‘Employers have always put out black propaganda and EMT ensures that the union’s name is prominent in station announcements. We expect dis-information,’ said Tosh McDonald. ‘But the people that matter – other trade unionists fighting to defend their pensions – know the real position.’

FINANCES: OPERATING SURPLUS CONTINUES 
The union’s member trustee Ian Smith said how difficult it had been to say goodbye to the union’s home in Arkwright Road but explained it had been in the interests of the union and those working at head office. Ian was followed by accountant Philip Clark who talked delegates through the union’s current financial position and its various accounts and expenditure over the year. He said ASLEF continues to have an operating surplus, although it was slightly reduced compared with the previous year.

Delegates probed on a variety of issues including provision of funds for union forums, control of credit and debit cards, a call for projected spending as well as historical accounts, and the financial agreement reached with Keith Norman when he resigned as general secretary a year ago.

Mick Whelan said after the debate that he’d always thought there’s no point in trying to get one over on a train driver. ‘If anyone needs proof of that, they should see how ASLEF’s accounts are scrutinised!’

REBUILDING RAIL: THE MYTHS OF PRIVATISATION

Ian Taylor who has been working on the ‘Rebuilding Rail ‘ research project commissioned by the rail unions began his presentation by debunking a number of myths that are quoted about privatisation. He pointed out that management costs have gone up by over 56% since privatisation, and while ‘no one is opposed to creating jobs – but we are looking for ones that actually work!’

He spoke of the enormous cost of privatisation and how – at the low end – over a billion pounds a year are wasted. For example, because Network Rail is not officially in the public sector, it is considered a risk and therefore had to pay more to borrow money. £300 million is wasted in duplication because of the number of railway companies, as McNulty himself noted. ‘The money wasted as a direct result of having a private network company could reduce fares by a fifth,’ Ian declared.

He said the argument that EU regulations prevented public ownership and insist on the split up of the network was actually wrong. While it is true that international passenger services have to be subject to competition, this did not apply to internal networks.

He pointed to evidence that franchises begin optimistically and often make extravagant claims which do not match up, especially towards the end of their contracts. The ROSCOs are a ‘totally unnecessary’ drain on railway finances.

Bringing the railway back as a single entity is, he concluded, the only way to provide the country with a reasonably priced, accessible railway network.

The unions will be using this thorough and rigorous research to make arguments to ministers, the public and the taxpayer: all of whom have a vested interest in supporting the report’s findings – as long as they are not restricted and opposed to it by political dogma.

MARIA EAGLE: DEVELOPING LABOUR’S PLANS FOR RAIL

Maria said she, and Ed Miliband, want to be challenged with ideas and projects that will help Labour win the next election. In Liverpool the Tories came seventh in the recent election for the city’s first mayor. Increasingly voters are realising that this government is ‘right-wing, incompetent and out of touch’.

She said the coalition’s policies had led to higher fares and less reliability. They want to break up and sell off Britain’s’ railway not improve them. ‘Labour is not opposed to efficiency,’ she declared. ‘We are opposed to waste.’

They are offering franchise bidders six per cent increases in fare prices each year to make them attractive to speculators. Daily services can be cut by up to ten per cent. This is unquestionably the route to ‘a rich man’s railway’. Worse, safety on platforms is to be sacrificed as cuts bite into staff numbers and reduce CCTV cameras.

The fragmented structure needs to be challenged, but the Tories are encouraging it. Every rail professional knows this is wrong. The government is not engaged in reform, but in turning back the clock. Network Rail needs to be independent of operating companies, not having ‘deep alliances’ with them. ‘We want more accountability, not more gravy trains,’ Maria said.

Labour’s rail review has been going on for a year and a half, she said, as she admitted that the last Labour government had not gone far enough in dealing with the effects of rail privatisation. ‘We need reform to deliver real accountability,’ she insisted.

‘When I began this review, I said I would rule nothing in and nothing out,’ she said. ‘But it is plain that privatisation has not delivered efficiencies. It has delivered higher fares, higher subsidies, excessive bonuses for senior managers, bailouts and declining services. It is the economics of the mad-house.

‘You have an important part to play in this review,’ Maria said. ‘I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead.’

POLITICS: OUT WITH THE NEW!

ASLEF’s conference passed a very clear message to politicians: that they want to see the final end of the New Labour experiment/plot/period.

Delegates wanted to see Labour MP’s who actually represented the working class, something that could be achieved by paying them a workers' wage, not the inflated salaries claimed by modern politicians. They must be accountable to local parties with mandatory reselection. The Labour’s Party Conference should be the supreme policy making body as we are ‘tired of passing policies that are ignored by our own party in government’. Real change however, can only be achieved with the socialist transformation of society. Andy Hudd insisted that we need a balanced and planned economy that will ‘work for the millions and not the millionaires’. ‘It’s not true that you can’t be elected on a left agenda,’ said Tony Cashman. ‘Look what the voters did in France only a couple of weeks ago, and in Greece.’

A heated but ultimately unsuccessful attempt was made to commit the union to try to get Labour to debate the reinstatement of the original Clause Four in the Party constitution, because the union is convinced the free market has failed. ‘Every day we see Labour unwilling to accept the basic principles of the party,’ said John Evans. ‘We need to spell them out.’ Other speakers said that they agreed with all the sentiments, but there were higher priorities to be debated within the Labour Party – like transport, health and housing. ‘Let’s not waste time changing words, let’s spend our time implementing the principles of Clause Four instead,’ pleaded Tosh McDonald.

The conference welcomed the union’s introduction of training seminars aimed at encouraging members to learn about, and become involved in, local politics. The AAD was concerned with the Tory government’s attacks on unions and sees the only way of reversing this being positive involvement and campaigning. It wants the union to actively campaign to encourage members to become involved in the Party and to engage with the Labour Party in its efforts to form the next government.

A motion that sought a day of national celebration when Margaret Thatcher finally leaves this earth was defeated.

The union will also campaign for the retention of Crossrail in public hands.

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