Wed, 10/07/2013 - 19:56

On Monday 24th June Conductors and Station Staff from Northern Ireland Railways who are members of the GMB union staged a 24 hour stoppage over managements proposed pay deal, sick pay, new working arrangements and a history of steadily worsening industrial relations. The management proposals would see only one Conductor working longer trains where there are presently two, which is a threat to future job retention and creation. The proposed changes to sick pay would mean than staff with 'unacceptable' absence levels go on to Statutory Sick Pay.
The stoppage saw services reduced from weekday to Sunday levels, even this paltry service was only possible because Conductors and Station Staff who are in SIPTU, who have accepted the deal, were not striking. The GMB members only asked of those not striking that they work only their own shifts, respect the union in dispute and not cover any of the strikers work. While many did so, plenty of others saw the strike as an opportunity to line their own pockets, working rest days and double shifts. Some managers and supervisors also covered Conductors duties, while some admin staff worked at ticket barriers. Without this extra coverage it is doubtful that a service could have operated at all. It also begs the question; if these managers can simply abandon their own jobs for a day, to do the vital work of others, whose job is actually important? It is worth remembering too that any concessions won by the strikers will also benefit those who took advantage of their action to make money.
Despite this undermining of the action, it proved that Conductors and Station Staff, increasingly considered menial and unimportant by management, have power. The 'important' grades - Drivers and Signalers - were not striking, yet without the strikers the railway could not function properly.
If all Conductors and Station Staff had been on strike, the railway would have shut down completely. The problem goes beyond mere trades sectionalism, where different unions represent different grades of staff. The railway now has several different unions within single grades, which leads to the situations described here. This is a legacy of previous perceived union sell-outs which have prompted some staff within a particular grade to switch to another union (or simply leave the trade unions altogether), while others stay put. Personal acrimony between those who leave and those who stay is not uncommon. This has left a situation of division within grades and between grades, proof that 'union-hopping' offers no long term hopes of progress, only unity between workers themselves. Sadly there seems no immediate prospect of closing the very real divisions that currently exist.