· 9 min read · News

Its not a radical agenda, it's a civilised agenda


Press reports frequently describe Aslefs general secretary, Mick Rix, as radical. Is this justified or is he as reasonable as he seems?

In only three of the past 10 years have there been no strikes at London Underground and the situation has now deteriorated to such an extent that a Parliamentary committee is set to examine the issue of LUs dreadful industrial relations.

For the director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, Tony Travers, things have gone too far. The Aslef and RMT approach to negotiations is at best, he says, deeply unfortunate. He argues, None of my local shops go on strike, no one at the LSE goes on strike, so why should they? Train drivers average earnings are almost 30,000 per year, and theres free travel for the employees family. Tube drivers get almost nine weeks holiday a year and they have a no-redundancy deal. Its simple greed. But, he qualifies, LU management is at fault too, for its failure to control the situation.

Even other unions have been taken aback by the Aslef and RMT stance. The normally mild-mannered AEEU general secretary Sir Ken Jackson attacked Tube strike leaders last month, saying they had gone for the throat of the travelling public by ordering two 24-hour stoppages in October. He said commuters were thoroughly fed-up, before urging Aslef and the RMT to call off their action.

And when you think of those two unions, certain images spring to mind of Arthur Scargill types who take no prisoners, or the no-messin voice of the late Jimmy Knapp... But Mick Rix? Surely not. When you meet the man, he doesnt quite match up to the stereotype.

Aslefs main man is quietly spoken, open, and doesnt rise to journalistic bait. He has a disarming way of putting things so that what comes across is a man talking what he patently considers to be plain common sense he doesnt behave like someone trying to convince. Rix is calm, thoughtful and couches what he says in reasonable, matter-of-fact terms. Reasonable, not radical. Is that where his power lies?

Like a sheepdog on a round-up mission, Rix, appointed general secretary in 1998 of the union which represents the bulk of mainline and London Underground train drivers, can make those he deals with do what he wants, apparently without even having to sink his teeth in.

So, is the presss frequent use of the word radical to describe the Aslef general secretary totally unjustified? Rix settles into a dark red leather chair in his oak-panelled office at Aslefs base (a mansion in Hampstead, no less) and lights a cigarette. He takes a deep drag before explaining in his low Yorkshire tones: People have viewpoints... and some might assume that I could be classed as a radical, he coughs, before adding, but actually, I dont attach much importance to labels.

Rix sees his main challenges as increasing the level of employment in the rail industry and giving members decent working conditions. He wants to see the job

professionalised so that members are adequately rewarded. He says the attitude of certain private companies (he wont name names) is an obstacle to achieving the latter. The power of persuasion has changed some of their minds. I think a lot of people totally underestimated even though its a private industry now that its still a very regulated industry and I dont think theyre used to the complexities.

On the one hand... weve argued for and got good remuneration and decent working hours but on the other hand I also believe that there should be stringent [safety] standards and that there should be good training that will run right through the core of it.

In contrast to what is probably the prevailing perception, Rix says the rail industry has always been successful in its efforts to maintain good employee relations. Theres no doubt that some people took a hardline attitude to trade unions didnt understand their value or worth. So weve had some interesting times in trying to change some peoples attitudes. Fortunately were in a pretty good industry... industrially, this union is probably the most powerful in the UK. We dont threaten, we always try to look at the negotiating route. But at the end of the day, our members its not just the union itself are not afraid to take the ultimate sanction. It takes time to get to that stage its a process.

A LU insider who wishes to remain anonymous, is somewhat surprised at this statement. We have a history of antagonism and conflict between unions and management, he says, and we aspire to change that without threats of industrial action.

Aslef has been involved in only three one-day strikes during Rixs time as general secretary London Underground, Connex and Eurotunnel which would suggest that the RMT is the more militant of the two rail unions. Yet Aslef, the fastest-growing union in the TUC, has 16,300 members: 99% of train drivers are members, as are 75% of London Underground drivers.

The important attribute of good trade union organisation is understanding how far you can go in each process, says Rix, adding that fostering good relationships is vital. He says Aslefs relationship with the Government is currently improving. When pressed to name the more challenging individuals he encounters, he pauses to think and then says, with diplomatic finesse: Weve got a chancellor who is extremely prudent and perhaps sometimes we would like to see him spread a little bit of his loose change about to improve certain things.

Rix repeatedly stresses the importance of dialogue and says Aslef is listened to and respected by those with whom it deals. So, how has he accomplished this turnaround in what he admits were conflict relationships only a few years ago?

I think at the moment the people that we meet on a regular basis are trying to demonstrate good communication and they make great efforts to keep in touch and sound people out on their viewpoints. It doesnt mean to say that you will achieve everything that you want but at least you know that your viewpoint is being taken seriously it might be modified but nonetheless is regarded, in some quarters, as influential. This, he says, is good for the industry which depends for its success on everyone involved both staff and users. Its got to be user-friendly, and its got to be efficient...

But surely its not very user-friendly at the moment? I think at times its perceived as not user-friendly. And theres a lot of things that can be done to change that culturally to change some of the deep-seated attitudes: I believe that some people came into this industry really just to make money. But you can make money and provide a high level of service... and I think that in fact if you concentrate on trying to provide a high level of service, it makes it user-friendly and eventually you start to make money out of it which benefits everybody the employee, the employer and the person using the service.

Rail has evolved into a necessary mode of travel, says Rix, and as such is a very high-profile business, a fact that he wants to champion to ensure that the necessary levels of investment are received from the likes of the prudent chancellor, no doubt.

And its hardly surprising that Rix extols the virtues of public ownership. If you have a policy as a government to try and provide a service, the easiest solution to ensure that it works is to own the thing. A consensual approach by all parties can actually make it work. The trouble with the nationalised industry was that it was never given licence to be innovative.

It was never given licence to raise investment itself and it was never given investment to market itself. I believe those three attributes and public ownership could provide the consensual approach... and could be very beneficial to the industry because what everybodys looking at is providing a service and guaranteeing it. Thats what everybody wants to get back to.

It sounds like a grand vision and Rix admits that there could be major problems making it a reality. There are too many competing forces, he says, plus the Governments lack of ownership means it is hamstrung when it comes to driving through policy.

Rix says that politicians have, in the past, failed to recognise that transport is a top priority issue alongside health and education. Transport is essential for business; its essential for free movement. What Im hoping for is that there is a [government] vision, he adds.

Rix admits that he has a mixed relationship with industry employers. At times, with certain companies that we deal with, the relationship is perhaps not as mature as it should be but there are others with which we do have some very good, mature relationships. When I ask about Railtrack now that it has been taken back under government control, he says, We welcome what has been done with Railtrack it is the first step towards the full radical restructuring the railways need if they are to give the travelling public the service they have a right to expect.

And what about Aslefs relationship with the rail and Tube commuter? Rix concedes that passengers may find their journeys uncomfortable but adds that drivers are under stress and strain. It would be very easy for us just to say, You will be totally safe but nobody has fully acknowledged what we actually do.

So, does Rix think the public are sympathetic? Some people think that trade unions are very selfish about their industry but my members are from communities... the relationship with the travelling public, I believe, involves helping them understand some of the problems that prevent us providing the level of service that they demand.

Aslefs negotiating record over the past five years over pay and conditions has been good, says Rix. Currently, 85% of all our members are on a 35-hour week, average, while the rest are moving on to 35-hour weeks within the next month, he adds, clearly pleased. And theres not been an actual dispute to implement that. We just used our negotiating skills to achieve it. The average earnings of train drivers are 27,000 per annum.

Rix says he enjoys pretty good relationships with HR people. Over the past 12-14 months there has been an increase in new thinking in HR. A lot of them have either already started implementing good relations or they are just starting out on that process because they recognise new values and are trying to instil that sort of culture within their companies. One of my objectives is to try and get the industry into the 21st century; with certain attitudes, its still locked in the 19th century.

And what does Rix believe are the main attributes of a good HR director? Communication, good dialogue and constantly looking at ways to support and train their managers to help them manage effectively. Working together is essential to the development of a successful business. Our members dont want to work for businesses or companies that are not successful. Everybody wants to work for something thats successful. Employers have to recognise that their key resource is a happy workforce, a workforce that is contributing and pleased to contribute.

His assertion that union members have to take a responsible attitude and not simply charge around making demands as they wish further weakens the case for describing him as radical.

I have the firm opinion were here to provide a public service, efficiently and safely. That is one of our main criteria and functions and I believe that thats what people want. So, we try to instil that ethos in our membership that we are there to provide a service and that we should be doing it efficiently and safely. Companies which recognise that these are the unions values are aware that we contribute a lot to their success. These attitudes are starting to permeate the industry, he believes. But why has it taken so long?

Management has gone through so many cultural changes over the past 20 years... first of all you had a Labour government in the 70s that tried to encourage tripartite alliances... at least all three parties were all sitting down and talking. The government was often criticised at that time for the trade unions popping in for beer and sandwiches. But employers were doing the same. There was a far more conciliatory approach to try conflict resolution.

I think conflict prevention is the new type of thinking that is emerging throughout the trade union movement and obviously through switched-on HR people. The issue is to put fires out or prevent fires being started. Conflict prevention is where I think greater resources should be directed, he adds.

For all his praise for the union and its members, Rix doesnt dodge the issue of endemic racist and sexist attitudes. He believes that trade unions reflect their industry and he wants the face and shape of Aslef to reflect the population as a whole. The industry, Ill be honest, is very shameful in its approach to tackling these issues, he says. But there are one or two companies that are making in-roads into tackling them in partnership with ourselves.

Its typically a white, middle-aged, male-dominated industry and this is not the way forward but its got to change for the right reasons. This is a good way of changing and shaping society and opinions within society as well. We have a big push on those issues which is now starting to be recognised perhaps its one of the reasons why were accused of being radicals. I think its not really a radical agenda, its a civilised agenda.

The former HR director at London Underground, Roger Straker, Ann Burfutt's predecessor has kept a close eye on LU since leaving and he finds it hard to disagree. I never had any serious difficulties with Aslef, he notes. It usually behaves like a traditional trade union, fighting its corner. And what about Rix? He certainly has a reputation for being on the hard left, says Straker, but not on the stupid left. I get the impression that hes a very pragmatic man and that you can deal with him.

As for his future, Rix foresees himself, in the coming five years at least, remaining general secretary of Aslef. I enjoy the job that I do. Its a wonderful environment to work in and theyre wonderful people to represent as well. Ive no ambitions to do anything else, to be honest.