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When Is a Deal Not a Deal?

Published: Feb 16 , 2017
Author: Robin Copland

I have been an interested (though fortunately not involved) bystander watching the protracted negotiations between Southern Rail, the train operating company (TOC) that runs the services for a large part of “commuter-land” in the south of England and the trade unions representing the train drivers and guards.  This is simplistic, but if you live to the south of London and commute into the city to work, then the chances are that you use a Southern Rail train to do so.  No Southern Rail trains?  Chaos.  Simple as that.

So – the recent dispute has been painful for all concerned.  Now let’s add a delicious little mix of confusion into the story; the TOC has to deal with not one, but two trade unions. 

  • On the one hand, you have the RMT union representing, in the main, the conductors. The RMT union is particularly worried that a new method of train management called “Driver Only Operation” (DOO), will dramatically reduce their power in a dispute.  As things stand and under current agreements, trains cannot run if there is no guard.  Under the new DOO arrangements, the RMT could call a strike but by so doing they would not close down the network.  They see this as a dramatic reduction in their power (which, to be fair, it is).
  • On the other hand, you have ASLEF, representing the drivers. To be fair to them, they demonstrated solidarity with their colleagues and came out on strike in support of the conductors’ opposition to DOO.

So back to the point.  On 2 February 2017, it was announced that ASLEF had reached a deal with Southern Rail.  Drivers will operate the train doors but in return, there will always be a second member of staff on every train.  The devil’s in the detail.  Under the current arrangements, that second person is a guard who, amongst other things, opens and closes the doors and will therefore be a member of RMT.  The new deal announced by ASLEF and the rail operator is vague.  Exactly who is this “second member of staff” going to be?

In an article on the BBC website dated 3 February, it is reported that RMT assistant general secretary Steve Hedley said it was “scandalous other people think they can do a deal that affects our members”.  He added, “We are not bound by that deal.  The dispute is still on”.

Here’s the point.  When you are in a multi-lateral negotiation, individual discussions that do not involve all of the participants happen all the time.  Going public with a bi-lateral deal between two of the (in this case) three parties – a deal that patently does not address one of the other party’s core issues – well, there be stormy waters, dragons and the end of the earth as we know it!

Watch this space.


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Robin Copland
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