Croydon tram drivers, who run a network of 39 stops on 28 miles of track in south London, went on strike on Tuesday and will do so again on Wednesday.
Members of the Aslef union, the 150 workers rejected a 3% wage offer from operator First Group and voted almost unanimously to strike, with an 86% turnout. With inflation at 11.7% RPI, the company’s offer equates to a steep pay cut.
Services were severely disrupted, affecting the Wimbledon tennis tournament, with no trams running between Croydon and Beckenham Junction, Elmers End or New Addington, and only at 20-minute intervals between Croydon and Wimbledon. A second round of strikes is scheduled for July 13 and 14.
First Group has a contract to run the service on behalf of Transport for London until 2030. It receives a fixed fee from TfL, indexed to November’s RPI of 7.1% in 2021. The company has a market capitalization of over £1 billion and is listed on the stock exchange. on the FTSE 250. After crashing at the onset of the COVID pandemic, its stock price is now back above where it was in February 2020.
Overall, First Group achieved adjusted operating profit of £226.8 million in the last financial year, compared to £220.2 million the previous year, increasing its profit margin by 3.2 % to 4.1%. Its First Rail division alone – which runs Avanti West Coast, Great Western Railway, SouthWestern Railway, TransPennine Express, Hull Trains, Lumo and London Trams – brought in £87.8m and £108.1m in the year former.
Executive Chairman David Martin commented in First Group’s 2022 annual report that the company has “delivered on its commitments this year to… unlock shareholder value… The board’s confidence in the group’s outlook is reflected in the decision to start the payment of dividends”.
The first annual dividend, which will be paid to shareholders in August, will total £8.1 million. A further £500m was distributed to shareholders last year following the sale of its Greyhound and other businesses.
CEO Matthew Gregory is to be rewarded with a base salary of £635,000 this year, with a 15% retirement allowance, car allowance, medical and life insurance, plus a bonus plan of up to 150% of that salary and a long-term incentive plan which last year paid out an additional £137,883. Chief Financial Officer Ryan Mangold receives £420,000 base salary plus the same benefits, and Martin £289,000.
First Group employees are worked to exhaustion to build these fortunes. On November 9, 2016, a London tram derailed in Croydon in a crash that killed 7 passengers and injured 51. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch concluded in its initial report that the drivers’ loss of consciousness was possibly be due to a “microsleep”. for several seconds.
Inspectors also found that First Group had taken no action following a similar speeding incident on the same stretch of track just 10 days before the crash. According to their statement, “the risk of trams overturning on bends was not well understood by the tram and therefore safety measures were insufficient”.
As early as March 2014, drivers were reporting their concerns about fatigue through a Confidential Safety Reporting Whistleblower System (CIRAS). Its report reads: “The shifts…and activities involved are believed to increase staff fatigue and the likelihood of microsleep, which could lead to an operational accident.”
CIRAS also records: “The journalist comments that the structure of the list is the main reason for the fatigue; a week of very early shifts is followed by a week of very late shifts. Normally staff are given two full days off in between, but there are a number of weeks in the list where only one full day is scheduled.
A TfL audit in the same year listed “fatigue management” as one of the seven main weaknesses of trams, noting that fatigue management measures “did not meet current Office of Rail and road”.
In 2017, a BBC investigation found four drivers who said they fell asleep at the wheel, with one citing erratic gear changes as the cause. They raised concerns about the fail-safe system that was supposed to immobilize the trams. An ex-driver says The temperature“I was always a bit dizzy and that’s because the way shifts work doesn’t allow drivers to have a regular sleep pattern.”
Now First Group expects workers to bear the pressure of a real pay cut on top of that dangerous workload.
The company has used the pandemic to carry out attacks on its workforce elsewhere, particularly its bus drivers, who operate 20% of routes in the UK. After at least 14 people were killed by COVID, drivers faced cuts to their wages and conditions.
Workers are in a strong position to lead the struggle against the first group and its endemic exploitation. Fatigue is rife across London’s transport network, with 20,000 London bus workers represented by Unite voting 97% for a strike over the issue in February 2020 – which the union used the pandemic as an excuse to shelve, while leaving drivers exposed to the new risk of COVID-19. Tens of thousands of other railway workers have just completed a week of national strikes in which pay and safety are two of the main issues. There is a strong feeling throughout the working class for a common struggle against the employers and the hated Johnson government standing behind them.
But the Aslef union has maintained its strictly limited action, calling for action London Trams three days after the conclusion of the national railway strikes last week, more than a week after the Rail, Maritime and Transport union ( RMT) and Unite’s one-day metro strike. .
Instead of appealing to other First Group and transport workers, the union appealed to the Labor Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Finn Brennan, Aslef’s organizer in London, pleaded: “The Mayor of London and the TfL board should step in to stop this abuse and ensure Tramlink treats its staff fairly.”
Khan’s and TfL’s attitude towards the striking railway workers is clear. He said earlier this month: “I don’t want the underground strikes to take place, I don’t want the national railway strikes to take place next week”, accusing the workers of “punishing the wrong people and denouncing the “economic cost”. Trish Ashton, director of rail and sponsored services at TfL, said he was “disappointed” with the action and referred Aslef to “the operator, to try and resolve this issue and avoid disrupting our customers”. They will support the operator all the way in the application of a below inflation agreement.
Appeals to Khan, such as the RMT union’s appeal to Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer to back the rail strikes, are an attempt to draw the wool over workers’ eyes, portraying their enemies as their friends while separating them from their true allies.
For all rail and transport workers, in the capital and across the country, the only way to defend wages, jobs, conditions and passenger safety from the private looters who run the networks and the government who holds the purse strings is to organize a common struggle for demands decided democratically by the workers themselves. They know what is needed to run a safe service and support their households. The cost can be paid by First Group fortunes and other operators.