Sunday, October 07, 2007

Refusing To Work On Safety Grounds

I've just written an article for Off The Rails about rail workers refusing to work on safety grounds. I doubt it will make the publication without some serious editing for length, but I rather like it in its full glory, so I thought I'd publish it here too. I'd welcome comments about how these strategies might be applied in other industries too. Here we go ...

Rail workers know that our employers are prepared to risk life and limb (ours, not theirs) to keep the trains running and the cash coming in. We can not trust them to protect us at work - we have to rely on ourselves.

In the first century of the railway industry, unsafe working conditions killed and injured workers at an alarming rate, and campaigns for higher safety standards drove the growth of railway trade unionism. Today, in the century of Tebay and Hatfield, this fight is as crucial as ever.

In the 1980s and 90s, Tory governments took away many of our trade union rights, and ten years of New Labour has kept virtually all the anti-union laws in place. Ironically though, over the same period our legal safety rights have increased. Although the political right wing would probably see this as a shift from collective to individual rights, and although safety law does refer to individual workers, we can still use it for collective struggles, together refusing to work on safety grounds. And unlike official industrial action, these struggles can be immediate and free from constraints of notice periods and exhaustive balloting procedures.

What Does The Law Say?

The Management Of Health And Safety At Work Regulations 1992 state that employees have the right to stop work and proceed to a place of safety "if exposed to serious, imminent and unavoidable danger".

The Trade Union Reform And Employment Rights Act 1993, confirmed by the Employment Rights Act 1996, gave protection to union health and safety representatives, and ordinary workers, to raise safety concerns and act on them. In particular, it made it illegal for employers to victimise workers who:
  • leave, propose to leave, or refuse to return to a workplace (or part of it) in the event of danger they believe to be serious and imminent and could not reasonably be expected to avert;
  • take appropriate steps to protect themselves and others when facing serious and imminent danger.
Case law has established that this covers danger to the public as well as to staff.

Using The Law

These legal rights were first used when Select Timber of Basingstoke sacked a building worker. He had called in Health & Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors when his employer made him work with lindane-treated wood which made him ill. He won his 'unfair dismissal' claim.

Then in January 1996, ASLEF members refused to drive trains on the North Kent lines after tests showed that 10% had cracked couplings. Management decided to keep the trains running but with the connecting doors locked to prevent passengers getting to the couplings. Management's profits-first-safety-second plan failed to consider what would happen if the couplings completely fractured at high speed, or how passengers could be evacuated through locked doors in the event of a fire or crash! So drivers refused to drive, the HSE backed them, and management were forced to withdraw the whole fleet for inspection and repair. It was a significant victory for workers' solidarity; we will never know how many lives it saved.

Connex won the South Eastern franchise under privatisation, then lost it a few years later when even the government could no longer ignore how crap it was. During its tenure, Connex ran an appalling safety regime, with long driving hours, obstruction and victimisation of safety reps, and no action on assaults, cab heat, flooding in sidings and other issues. But workers still won a few victories, by refusing to use unsafe walkways, take meal breaks in smoke-filled mess rooms, use 465/6 cabs when unbearably hot, or take trains into passenger service with safety faults.

In 2002, when the Fire Brigades Union took strike action for a decent pay rise, London Underground drivers refused to drive because they knew the potentially-fatal consequences of lack of fire cover in the event of a fire or crash. It was also an act of solidarity with the striking firefighters. On the second day of the drivers' refusal, LUL sent them home without pay (an act of solidarity with the Fire Brigade employers!). Months later, the company settled the drivers' Employment Tribunal claim and fully refunded their docked pay.

2005 saw a case which highlighted the injustice of the anti-union laws. Midland Mainline introduced multiple-unit trains with no connecting door. Guards insisted that there should be a guard in each part of the train and refused to work the trains as the only guard unless the inaccessible part of the train was locked out of use. RMT then balloted the 100 guards for industrial action. 90% voted Yes, only to see their employer get a court to declare the ballot illegal on the grounds that it was 'tainted' by the refusal to work. It was a scandalous class-biased ruling, which unfortunately seems to have made RMT more reluctant to take action on safety issues - the 2007 London Underground Rule Book dispute being a case in point. It is also a lesson to the unions that it may be better not to mix refusal to work with industrial action ballots. Organise the refusal properly and there should be no need to ballot too. In any case, we lose money when we strike, but not when we assert our legal rights to refuse to work on safety grounds.

Also in 2005, ASLEF produced advice to members on refusal to drive if the cab is too hot. Typically for official union notices, it is cautiously-worded: "Members are advised that ASLEF believes that circumstances may arise in which our members and the public are in 'serious and imminent danger', due to the possible physical symptoms arising from heat-related illnesses while driving trains in hot weather." Off The Rails can be more direct. If the cab's too hot, refuse to get in it. If any working practice is unsafe, refuse to do it.

Refusing Unsafe Work

There are countless other examples more small-scale and local than these. In many cases, unsafe working conditions have continued for days, weeks, even months, while management do nothing - then workers refuse to work and the problem quickly gets fixed. Employers can have all the paperwork and procedures that they like, but it is often only workers' action that enforces them. In one case, staff worked in a ticket office whose air conditioning unit failed - management did nothing for weeks, then the ticket sellers closed their windows and an hour later management delivered a fan! In another, the employer failed for several weeks to investigate the suspected presence of asbestos in a lift machine room, until station staff found out about it, took the lift out of service and closed the station. In yet another, management let a P-Way cabin descend into an appalling unhygienic state, but when workers refused to book on there, quickly got it cleaned up.

Here's what to do. Make sure you know your employer's procedure for refusal to work on grounds of health and safety concerns. Legally, every employer must have one, and it should be available to all workers. You could make it even more available by dishing out copies in the workplace, and/or producing a clear, concise summary of it and giving everyone a copy.

When you are faced with a dangerous situation, follow the procedure. Alert your union health and safety rep; tell all your workmates and encourage them to take the same action as you. You will probably have to write a statement as to why you are refusing to work. Management may well try to intimidate you and isolate you. Stick to your guns and remember that strength is in numbers. Keep together, and try to spread your action as quickly as possible. Go to the rest of the union, and to other unions, for support. When and where appropriate, explain to the public that you acted in their interest against a company that risked their safety.

When workers take action like this, it asserts our right to have control over our workplace and our safety. It is usually initiated by rank-and-file union members rather than head offices, and should therefore be controlled by the rank and file. However, stronger leadership and encouragement from head offices could give rail workers more confidence to use this method of struggle to improve our safety and conditions at work.

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