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Boil-in-the-bag drivers

The recent train drivers union (ASLEF) leadership election was a shock to many rail union activists.

It had been thought that the current leader, Mick Rix would walk it, so he hardly bothered to campaign. Shaun Brady was seen as a right-wing Neanderthal no-hoper who had only managed to gain the support of a handful of branches compared with Rix, who had the backing of over 80 branches. While Rix sat on his backside, Brady got out and about with his populist arguments, ranging from antipolitical-correctness to opposition to asylum seekers.

To many, the real shock was not that Rix got defeated, but that so many drivers ignored their branches and voted for the likes of Brady. This can be partly explained by the fact that, like many unions, ASLEF is moribund and isolated from the workplace, even at branch level. Also, there is the fact of the nature of ASLEF as a craft union, which means it has always sought to preserve and further the sectarian interests of drivers, often with little regard for other rail workers. This elitism within ASLEF is merely a reflection of those drivers who see themselves as a skilled group, above other rail workers.

The hierarchical mindset means some drivers are willing to take action to defend and preserve their own immediate interests, while showing little interest in the problems and struggles of other rail workers. As new technology has effectively de-skilled the craft status of drivers, this conservatism has become even more entrenched, as they have sought to preserve their status in a changing world. Hence, we have the situation where many drivers have opposed the idea that guards can become drivers, on the grounds that they had only had to undergo a short training course. Not only did they pour cold water on these so-called “boil-inthe-bag drivers” (ready in twenty minutes), they were also openly hostile to the idea of women becoming drivers. It is precisely this conservatism that Brady's campaign of putting drivers' economic interests first and ridding the union of “trendy” lefty politics, appealed to.

Here at Catalyst, we have argued that reactionary ideas should be challenged and defeated. It was the failure of Rix to challenge and overcome such reactionism that led to his downfall. ASLEF's sectionalism stands in the way of building a workplace organisation aimed at uniting all workers in opposition to the attacks of a boss class currently in full cry. Craft unionism and the elitism that underpins it has been a thorn in trade unionism's side for centuries; it is high time it was pulled out and discarded, and ASLEF along with it.

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