STEPHEN GLOVER: How I wish we could do a Ronnie Reagan and fire the bolshy rail strikers making our lives a misery
Being a peace-loving man, I am not often tempted to throw my radio at the wall. But I came very close on Tuesday morning when listening to an interview with Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, on Radio 4's Today programme.
Grayling was being asked about the latest wave of strikes which have brought Southern Railway trains to a halt, and prevented hundreds of thousands of commuters from getting to their work in London.
His response was that he would be prepared to meet the rail union leaders if they called off the strike. But he reminded listeners it was not his job to negotiate a settlement with the unions. It was a dispute between them and the rail company which runs Southern.
The message to Southern Railway, and its owner, Go-Ahead, should be simple. You've forfeited any right to keep your franchise
Doesn't this say it all? On the one hand, there is a weak and incompetent management which presides over a railway with the worse punctuality record in the country — which is saying something. On the other hand, there are selfish, Luddite trade unions which put interests of their members in front of those of passengers.
If there were ever an occasion when the Transport Secretary should intervene, this is it. Thousands of Southern passengers are being forced to wait for trains which may never come. On Tuesday alone, 1,100 of them were cancelled. People arrive late at work — tired, cross, misused and sometimes tearful — or not at all.
London prides itself on being a 'world city', but I can tell you that the most run-down, chaotic Third World city imaginable would not tolerate the kind of daily disruption that is being organised by the destructive duopoly of Southern Railway and the rail unions.
So it is a dereliction of duty for Mr Grayling to say he'd be prepared to meet the leaders of the Aslef trade union if they call off their succession of damaging strikes, which have been blighting people's lives since April. He should summon each side and tell them that, in a modern developed economy, the Government will not allow them to treat passengers worse than cattle.
The message to Southern Railway, and its owner, Go-Ahead, should be simple. You've forfeited any right to keep your franchise. Even before the latest strikes, Southern offered an inexcusably unreliable service, with fewer than 60 per cent of trains arriving near schedule.
Over the years, its senior executives have pocketed huge salaries and bonuses. Last year, David Brown, the chief executive of Go-Ahead, trousered £2.2 million for delivering the worst train service in Europe, though even he will be forced a take pay cut this year.
It is a dereliction of duty for Mr Grayling to say he'd be prepared to meet the leaders of the Aslef trade union if they call off their succession of damaging strikes
Grayling must tell Southern what his predecessor, Patrick McLoughlin, lacked the courage or nous to. It's over. Almost anyone could run the franchise better, and some rail companies (for example, the efficient and imaginative German-owned Chiltern Railways) would provide a far superior service.
Do not think, by the way, that the suffering of Southern Railway passengers is unique. It is simply the experience of many millions of us writ large. I doubt that my habitual train from Oxford to London arrives punctually more than one time out of 50, and people often have to stand. One way or another, most of us are being let down by a dysfunctional rail system.
So far as Southern is concerned, the crucial point is that even when the present run of strikes ends, as it eventually must, it will still be incapable of operating a proper railway for its 300,000 daily passengers (or 'customers' as they are now idiotically called). That is why the company must be stripped of its franchise.
But it would be idle to suggest that this alone will solve the problem. For Southern, like much of the rail network, is being held to ransom by intransigent, greedy and bloody-minded trade unionists whose mindset is indistinguishable from their predecessors who helped to bring the British motor and shipbuilding industries to a standstill in the Seventies.
The driver's union Aslef has been making the running along with guards belonging to the RMT union. The latter group objects to the introduction of more driver-only operated trains on the spurious grounds of safety, even though independent inspectors have given the new arrangements a clean bill of health.
No jobs are threatened, at any rate in the foreseeable future, and no pay-cut is proposed. But like the obstreperous print unions of the Seventies and Eighties who refused to accept new technology — and practically put the newspaper industry out of business — these myopic dinosaurs stand in the way of progress, serving their own interests rather than those of passengers.
As both unions are pretty Hard Left, it's a fair bet that they also have political motives. Chris Grayling has accused them of mounting 'politically motivated' strikes. Since the constituencies of 16 Tory MPs are affected by the stoppages (which are set to last until Christmas and beyond), he may well have a point.
All the more reason for him and the Government to get tough with these trades unions, whose activities are wrecking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. However grossly deficient the management of Southern Railway may be, the anarchy unleashed by the unions demands even more urgent action.
Does Mr Grayling have a sensible plan? It seems not. May I therefore put one in his head by reminding him of what President Ronald Reagan successfully did in the United States when his administration was thwarted by over-mighty trades unions?
On August 5, 1981, Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored his order to return to work
On August 5, 1981, he fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored his order to return to work. Some 3,000 supervisors were joined by 2,000 non-striking controllers and 900 military controllers to keep the service going. Before long, 80 per cent of flights were operating normally. The strikers never got their old jobs back.
What this episode showed was that no group of workers — regardless of any blackmail tactics — are indispensable if employers are prepared to stand up to them. It is a lesson which the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch showed he had learnt in 1986 when he removed his printing operations overnight to a plant in Wapping, where he employed efficient (and well-paid) non-union labour.
It is outrageous that in a supposedly civilised country, a handful of selfish, politically motivated trade unionists should be allowed to ruin the lives of men and women whose only wish is that they should be able to work in order to provide for themselves and their families.
I accept, of course, that the air traffic controllers in the U.S. were government employees, whereas striking rail workers are employed by a private company. But in both cases we see an abuse of monopoly power. A self-serving minority threatens the interests of the general public.
If Mr Grayling has a better idea, perhaps he could tell us. I fear that at the moment he doesn't know what to do. Here is a man who has often talked the talk in his political life, yet as a Cabinet minister is proving disappointingly ineffectual.
Meanwhile, the Church of England has rather idiotically offered a characteristically anodyne statement about the 'moral duty' of both parties in the dispute to end the 'circle of blame'. But this is surely not a conflict in which God should be expected to intervene when it is within the competence of mere mortals to solve the problem.
See off the trade unions, and get rid of Southern Railway. If Chris Grayling and the Government ever summon the courage to do this, they will set our entire rail system on a proper track. If they don't, the appalling suffering of millions of blameless passengers will go on.
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