RADIO, TV and print journalists set off in hot pursuit of rail union RMT leader Mick Cash yesterday, claiming to believe that industrial disputes on Southern Rail are politically motivated.
Their “evidence” amounted to comments made by union president Sean Hoyle in September at a TUC fringe meeting which none of the media deemed crucial enough to report at the time.
Their new-found importance derives from the desire of the anti-union media to portray strike action to maintain a conductor-guard as a second safety-critical staff member on Southern Rail trains as, in reality, a plot to overthrow the government.
The phenomenon of “fake news” has been widely discussed in recent weeks, but few items of news can have been as fake as this.
How dim do these media outlets believe RMT members are to accept that they could be persuaded to take strike action on fraudulent grounds?
Members voted to strike because they are convinced that having only one safety-critical member of staff on a train is dangerous for passengers.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is the minister responsible for ensuring the smooth and safe operation of railways and he’s not doing his job.
Southern Rail management could not have prevented the RMT leader from attending last Wednesday’s talks aimed at ending strikes on the network without Grayling’s approval.
The obvious conclusion is that the government wants industrial action to continue. The question is why?
Many Southern Rail passengers have noted that, even when strikes aren’t taking place, the service is disgraceful, with cancellations, lateness and overcrowding.
Does the government hope to convince the travelling public that trade unionists are to blame for a substandard service rather than privatisation and an ill-performing franchise that sees Southern provide the worst service of all?
Does it hope to build up public support for legislation to ban strikes on the railways that it already plans to introduce anyway?
Or is it just that it wants to provoke a confrontation with rail unions in the hope of smashing them?
The latter alternative would certainly be in line with comments made by Department for Transport passenger services managing director Peter Wilkinson last February at a public meeting in Croydon set up by Tory MP Gavin Barwell, since promoted to a junior minister.
“Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Wilkinson told the audience.
“We have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place.
“They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”
“My industry!” No trace of a messianic complex there then.
Perhaps the anti-union media and such Labour MPs as Meg Hillier who pay lip service to the right to strike while accusing unions of “shooting themselves in the foot” ought to appreciate what RMT and drivers’ union Aslef are up against in Southern Rail.
Why does Hillier patronise RMT by suggesting that it needs “a bit of a wake-up call about the impact on hard-working people who are trying to get to work or go on holiday” rather than the real villains of the piece?
MPs should keep pressure on the government, laying blame where it deserves to be and demanding that Grayling and his officials put passengers’ safety and services before the privateers.