The first day of the ASLEF conference

20 May 2013

  • resolved that any attempt to remove final salary scheme pensions will lead to a dispute
  • heard from the union’s president, Alan Donnelly
  • was addressed by the leader of the International Workers’ Federation
  • accepted the financial statement of the union’s auditors
  • engaged in a lively debate with Professor David Begg

If government proposals lead to the withdrawal of final salary pensions, ASLEF will consider itself in dispute with the Train Operating Companies - who will be acting as the agents of the government.

In January changes were made to pension laws that directly attacked the retirement benefits of railway workers. ‘We cannot sit back and watch our hard-fought pensions be changed without reference to members of the scheme or their representatives.’


In his speech to conference, Alan spoke with pride about the number of new delegates, which he said was the mark of a lively and vibrant union.

He pointed out how the union’s political profile was gradually improving, and talked about the importance of this at a time of government attacks on working people and when the union was preparing to have a ballot about the retention of its political fund. He said we had the opportunity to develop positive alternatives rather than simply complain about what is wrong with the Coalition.

He was adamant that we had a duty to the young people of the country, and that we needed to look at retirement age in light of this.

Alan spoke about the challenges facing the freight sector, offered his best wishes to ChristopherMcGee, who he said had ‘carried the can for the industry’ and called on the union to improve its communication at every level. We also need to publicise what we do well, like the remarkable record of continuing, in these austere times, to negotiate pay rises that are over the rate of inflation.

‘We can’t sleepwalk into losing terms and conditions,’ he said. ‘We have moved a long way, but at every stage we find people who are anxious to move us back. We need to defend what we have as well as seek to progress.


Stephen Cotton, the acting general secretary of the 4.5 million-strong International TransportFederation (ITF) concentrated on three issues

  •  The importance of international relations
  •  changing face of transportation
  •  How the ITF is changing to respond to the challenge.

He began his contribution by comparing the role of train drivers with that of ship’s masters and airline pilots. ‘These three groups are in control of the job and personally responsible for the safety of their passengers. I urge you to protect the leverage you have, but also to offer your support to workers throughout the world because of your unique understandings.’

‘My vision is an ever-stronger ITF where we recognise that our challenges and solutions are the same whether you drive a train in the UK or in India. We all need good representatives, maximum leverage, collective bargaining and a progressive agenda.’

One way he favoured of doing this was to organise unions along the supply chain. ‘That way we can build workers’ strength where they are weakest around the world.’

Finally he insisted that we need a global view because that is how the employer is organised and we must mirror their organisations. ASLEF’s support in global solidarity is‘hugely appreciated and warmly welcomed,’ he said.


‘One of the most important decisions the union has made in recent years is rigid control over its finances,’ says Ian Smith, the union’s member trustee. The finance committee now briefs the executive at the beginning of each of its monthly sessions.

ASLEF showed a £324,000 operating surplus in 2012, and more stability will come from the union letting out spare space at the head office building in Farringdon. Inevitably there are still difficulties with the headquarters building, especially about disabled access: but the best news, perhaps, is that the union’s membership increased last year. ‘To remain a small independent union costs money: professionalism in negotiations and education costs money; effectiveness costs money,’ Ian declared. ‘And democracy doesn’t come cheap, although it is pleasing to see that subscription increases haveremained lower than the rate of inflation.’

Legal costs have been expensive, especially in ending the dispute with former general secretary Shaun Brady, and the costs of the annual conference, the Journal and affiliations, for example to the TUC, all increased. We also had one-off costs of the leaving package of the previous general secretary, and money needed to be found to cover agreements over staff pensions.


David Begg, whose father was a train driver and active ASLEF member, is one of Britain’s leading commentators on transport. He is chief executive of Transport Times, Visiting Professor in Sustainable Transport at Plymouth University, director of the Campaign for High Speed Rail, and sits as a non-executive board member of First Group.

He said at one point,‘I remember the mid-1990s and the Save Our Railways campaign against privatisation. Well, we’ve saved them. We have the safest railways in Europe, apart from Luxembourg, which is a testimony to the men and women who work on our railways, and the biggest shift from cars to trains anywhere in Europe, and the fastest growing railway in Europe.’

But when Mr Begg cheerfully told delegates, ‘I’m on the board of First Group’, fraternal warmth abandoned the hall for a time while Mr Begg’s defence of Britain’s privatised railways was ... refuted!

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