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‘Unite and Fight’: Why Sussex students should back rail strikes

If there were any more evidence needed of the government’s continued efforts to undermine unions on strike, it has come in the form of the recent amendments to the Trade Unions Act (2016), which have come into force this month. It is now mandatory for companies to be informed of planned strike actions 14 days ahead of time, rather than the previous week notice required. It has also been demanded that picket lines have a “picketing supervisor”, and according to BBC news, there has been a “removal of restrictions on using temporary workers to cover for striking staff. A ban has been in place since 1973”. So with the unions under attack, where do students stand?

While we’ve all heard chants of “students and workers unite and fight”, how often do we see this followed through with by either group? In the most recent struggles for students – rising tuition fees – we have seen barely any support from groups of workers not directly linked to the education system. Even within these groups, support has been timid at best. Still, how can we possibly expect support for student movements if students do not stand with workers?

Over the last 18 months, there has been an ongoing dispute between Southern Rail (nicknamed Southern Fail) and the RMT Union – that is the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ Union, Britain’s largest specialist transport trade union. You may have come into contact with these strikes when you weren’t able to make it home for your mum’s birthday, or if, like one disgruntled editor, you were stuck on a replacement bus service while heavily hungover and “everything hurt!”.

However, what often slips past the media coverage of the strike is the actual reason behind it – primarily protecting health and safety. Southern Rail has proposed running driver only operated trains. This would mean the removal of the guards who currently check all of the doors in case people get stuck in them, help people with disabilities onto trains from the platforms, and aid people in carrying luggage and prams. Not to mention, all guards undergo thorough health and safety training, making them highly equipped in emergency situations. Having only drivers on the trains, plus untrained personnel, would mean that only two people (one of whom is hopefully driving the train) would be available in an emergency, to help you onto a train, and to check that everything is entirely safe. The recent introduction of stickers showing passengers how to evacuate themselves shows the understood risks. I know who I would want there to help me.

The RMT Union has declared that this proposal is dangerous for passengers, and that is where the strike began. Southern Rail of course claim that their new proposals are safe – it probably helps that the Chief Executive Officer of GTR, Charles Horton, sits on the Rail Safety and Standards Board. Less than three months ago, in Watford, a driver became incapacitated and it was the on-board safety trained guard who was left to evacuate passengers and carry out safety procedures.

While the strikes have been incredibly disruptive (which is the point of strikes, after all) there is a distinct fact being ignored by almost everyone in a position to do something about them – Southern Rail are losing no money through the strikes. They are not losing any money through the lack of trains running. They are not even losing money through keeping guards on trains. The government pays GTR (of which Southern Rail are one quarter) a set amount of £1.1 billion annually, whether they sell tickets or not. The only reason for Southern to introduce driver only trains is to maximise their profits even further. This means there are two ways for the strikes to end. Southern Rail could back down (unlikely), the government could step up and remind Southern Rail that they are supposed to be providers of public transport, not public endangerment. The only way either of these are going to happen will be through massive public pressure.

The only way the Southern Rail situation will be resolved will be from massive public pressure. As Southern’s profits remain the same whether they sell tickets or not, it is only support for the strike from other unions and the public which will make the difference. This is where students come in.

There is a tendency to see students and workers as completely separate, but this is not the reality. With the amount of students in work, we make up a large portion of the work force anyway. But more than that, students are generally (unless you’re really lucky) aiming to become qualified in order to begin working. The divides between students and workers are purely imaginary, but they charge a distinct lack of interest in communication and joint actions between these two groups.
This is a huge waste. Look at the most recent student actions, for instance. At the Boycott the NSS demo, there were not only speeches from Students’ Union leaders, but also members of the UCU, the University and College Union, which is the union most of your lecturers are members of. Having more support for strikes, boycotts, and other large-scale industrial actions is key for the success of unions.

Yet, at current, communication between unions is in a dire state, with little to no joint actions. With one of the largest strikes in recent history happening mere yards from our campus, where has the support been from the students or, perhaps more pressingly, the Students’ Union?

The Students’ Union needs to make a concerted effort to stand with the RMT and, on a larger scale, against the breaking down of the unions. The current strike action is the largest taken by the RMT since the 1940s, and is the largest action seen in Britain since the miner’s strikes of the 1980s. Those historic miner’s strikes were the last major instance of collaboration between unions and the public, and the effects of that loss can still be seen in the decimated mining communities today. Though we are encouraged to think of striking workers as only a nuisance, we must not forget that it was unions (including the RMT) which built the labour party, and have shaped politics as we know it today.

So to anyone who tells you that going on strike is selfish, that their travel needs outweigh the need for safety and thousands of jobs, remind them that it is the unions who have made a world in which we can expect respect for workers, decent pay, and good working conditions. There is a way to end this strike, and get back full use of the trains – and that way is through standing with the unions.

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