Rail union’s campaign for national bargaining gathers steam

The train drivers’ trade union Aslef is campaigning for the restoration of a national framework for collective bargaining in the UK railway sector. During 2003, it has published a report on the issue, together with two independent studies that support its case.

A campaign by the train drivers’ trade union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef), aimed at restoring a national framework for industrial relations in the rail industry (UK0201169F), reflects persistent and significant differences in pay and conditions for drivers in different railway companies. The current company-level bargaining arrangements have existed since rail privatisation in the mid-1990s (TN0003402S). Trade union demands for sector-level collective bargaining gathered momentum recently when it became clear that the national Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), established in 2001 to provide strategic direction for the industry, was developing a collective bargaining role. In response, and in order to advance its campaign with the other rail unions, during 2003 Aslef issued its own report into industrial relations in the sector and commissioned two independent studies. The first was by the research firm Incomes Data Services (IDS), and the second by Keith Ewing, president of the Institute of Employment Rights and professor of public law at King’s College London.

Aslef report

The union’s report, A framework for national bargaining in the railway industry, calls current industrial relations in the sector 'dysfunctional', with huge disparities in terms and conditions between workers performing the same jobs. It also accuses the SRA of growing interference in negotiations with individual train operating companies (TOCs). This has led to 'a complete breakdown in collective bargaining', as company-level collective bargaining 'conceals the fact that fundamental decisions are now being taken at a level which is currently outside of trade union influence'.

Instead of the current arrangements, the union proposes a three-tier system of industrial relations for the industry. A Railways Staff National Council would address pay, hours, pensions, safety and other major issues at peak level. Company-level arrangements for consultation and negotiation over supplementary and other issues would continue through the current network of 'lead officers' and company councils. The third tier would consist of local union and health and safety representatives. In addition, the union proposes a Railways Staff National Tribunal to mediate in disputes at national level, and a role for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) in any disputes at individual companies. The union claims that the restoration of a national framework would encourage a 'civilisation' of industrial relations, as well as progressing its core demands. These are: a commitment to equal pay for drivers (realistically in four pay bands reflecting different market segments - Regional, Intercity, Freight, and London and South East); equalisation of working time arrangements (driving time, working time, rest and breaks, time off); and the reintegration of pensions into a single scheme.

IDS study

The IDS study was commissioned by Aslef in February 2003. The report, The impact of the fragmentation of collective bargaining in the rail industry, finds that the fragmentation of collective bargaining introduced by privatisation has had adverse effects. There are endemic staff shortages due to redundancies and a lack of training by individual companies. Competition between companies has led to higher pay for drivers, but slower and less far-reaching pay restructuring for other grades has provoked industrial disputes over differentials. The report also identifies growing intervention in collective bargaining by the SRA, for example at Arriva Trains Northern in 2002. The SRA justified this on the grounds of limiting 'poaching' between firms, and of containing overall costs at a time when franchises were coming up for renewal. The report concludes that industrial relations in the railways remain unstable compared with other sectors in the UK and relative to the rail industry in other countries.

Ewing study

The report by Keith Ewing , Moving forward on the railway - integrated industrial relations and the public interest, also argues that industrial relations in the railway industry have deteriorated since privatisation. Recent examples include a vote by members of the white-collar Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) for strike action, the first for 30 years. Disputes involving the two main rail unions are much more common. In the first few months of 2003, Aslef was involved in six official disputes, while in the 10 months from mid-2002, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) was involved in 10 separate official disputes. With national bargaining giving way to 29 TOCs and five freight companies, the picture is described by Professor Ewing as 'institutionalised chaos', with 'a patchwork of bargaining structures, a poor framework of disputes procedures, and a great variation in bargaining outcomes'. Particular problems are:

  • weak dispute resolution procedures under the present arrangements;
  • localised bargaining, which has produced 'unacceptable pay differentials' and differences in other terms and conditions of employment;
  • skills and labour shortages and high levels of overtime;
  • poor staff morale leading to a relatively high number of preventable disputes; and
  • an 'appalling record' on equality and diversity. For example, less than 3% of train drivers are women.

Nonetheless, emerging national standards are identified in a number of areas, including in respect of training (in response to chronic labour shortages), drivers’ hours (in response to coordinated union demands), and most recently the intervention of the SRA in company-level bargaining (UK0304103F). Though the SRA has no formal industrial relations remit, the report argues that it has 'assumed an industrial relations role' which, according to Professor Ewing, opens it up to judicial review. Yet this 'emerging position of centralised control by the SRA' also makes a persuasive case for national standards, albeit in a more transparent and accountable form. The report concludes that a return to national collective bargaining would restore stability in industrial relations through greater fairness and equity for employees and more predictability for franchise holders. Fears of a national strike are misplaced, since legal restrictions on the right to strike limit the scope for 'spill-over' from one company to another, and national arrangements would help defuse problems, procedurally through a clear dispute resolution mechanism, and substantively by addressing issues such as differentials. As a practical first step, the report suggests that the SRA could bring employers and the unions together with a view to negotiating a national agreement. This would then become a franchise condition for all TOCs and freight companies. The three key elements at national level would be:

  • negotiating machinery concerned with minimum standards over pay (including pensions), hours and holidays;
  • consultation machinery concerned with common standards over issues such as equality and diversity, health and safety, and the recruitment, training and deployment of staff; and
  • dispute resolution machinery to provide a framework for the peaceful settlement of disputes within the industry as a whole.


National bargaining in the rail industry dates back to 1911, some 37 years before nationalisation. As the IDS report argues, national arrangements offer employers the benefits of predictability and lower bargaining transaction costs, the removal of difficult issues from workplace level, the creation of a broader 'negotiating mass' facilitating compromises, and some insulation from pay undercutting and 'leap-frogging'. Employers today might argue that only local agreements can provide the flexibility and improved productivity necessary to improve pay and conditions, but the evidence of a large number of industrial disputes suggests otherwise.

There is no doubt that some groups of employees, notably drivers, have drawn certain benefits from privatisation. The drivers’ union has pursued a common platform of 16 core bargaining demands - the 'Drivers’ charter'- and achieved some success over issues such as a 35-hour week, 100% pensionable pay, and the elimination of rest-day working. The key difference now is the emergence of the SRA as an important player in industrial relations. By imposing financial constraints on TOCs to prevent them making favourable settlements, or waiving fines for companies in industrial disputes, the SRA has made it more difficult for the unions to realise further gains. At the same time the more or less visible hand of the SRA, in attempting to bring some collective order to employers, makes the suggestion of a return to a national framework more plausible.

This might also be facilitated by the growing consolidation of ownership in the sector. National Express now owns roughly half the TOCs established on privatisation, with most of the rest shared between Virgin, Stagecoach, First Group and Arriva. In 2002, the Labour Party conference agreed a motion in support of 'national framework arrangements' for industrial relations in the rail industry. A coordinated trade union campaign, in conjunction with other stakeholders and user groups, might not be wholly futile if the government wants to secure the stability necessary for future franchise reform. (J Arrowsmith, IRRU)

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