Aslef's militant 'wrecker' prepares to enter the fray

Barrie Clement talks to Lew Adams, the train drivers' leader, as strikes loom over pay
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The Independent Online
Lew Adams, leader of Aslef, the train drivers' union about to do battle with management, takes a dog-eared scrapbook out of a heavy mahogany book case.

In it, two press cuttings: one from the Daily Mail another from the Daily Express, vintage 1982. A picture of Mr Adams, along with other senior Aslef leaders and activists appears under the headline "Wreckers" in the Express and "The Shadowy Seven" in the Mail.

Mr Adams, 55, is proud of the notoriety he achieved as a militant shop steward in Stratford, east London, and his part in a six-day strike to stop BR introducing "flexible rostering".

He is about to enter the public prints once more over the six 24-hour strikes planned by his members in protest at British Rail's 3 per cent pay offer.

He is a railwayman to his boots, a trade unionist of the old school and a man who declares his scepticism of New Labour under Tony Blair.

"The party is capitulating principle to fair-weather friends," he says in his oak-panelled office at the union's opulent Hampstead offices. Mr Adams's enthusiasm for prosecuting the imminent campaign of industrial action is incontestable. "It is wrong in the extreme that my members are paid little more than pounds 20,000 a year to drive trains worth millions of pounds, which can weigh 2,000 tons and carry 1,000 passengers. Surely someone somewhere in management can understand what we are saying?"

He estimates that senior executives have been awarded bonus increases worth around 20 per cent of their salaries.

Mr Adams argues that while his union is run on the basis of consensus, the industry in which it operates is deeply divided between workers and managers. He says BR conducts industrial relations through the medium of "whispering management".

"It really is sinister. Any of our people who are seen to have stepped out of line are taken to one side and told to watch their step. BR have lost their ability to manage. They are given a list of standards and they measure people rigidly against it, he said."

He began his railway career on his 15th birthday. "I walked through the gate on the morning of 16 August 1954, I was given a scraper, a can of oil and a rag and told to clean an engine".

He became a fireman on steam engines, and qualified as a diesel driver when steam was being phased out. Rail folklore has it that he registered his determination to become general secretary when he gained his first union office. His ambition was achieved 18 months ago.

Mr Adams insists that his organisation has made a number of concessions to the "new trade unionism", although it seems that much of the change has been forced on it by legislation.

Aslef is a highly disciplined union which prefers to conduct its affairs through the tdemocratic centralism beloved of the old Communist Party. Debate is carried out strictly within the union and decisions taken by the executive council tend to be holy writ.

The general secretary enjoys his reputation for omniscience. A portrait of Mr Adams looks down on the members of the executive in the union boardroom. "They reckon my eyes follow them round," he says.

Despite a substantial vote against industrial action, it is highly unlikely that any of the union's 12,000 members will cross picket lines next Friday. Mr Adams and his organisation believe in solidarity.