Union plans to supply drivers if BR sold off

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A key rail union and one of the country's biggest employment agencies are planning a joint venture to supply privatised train operators with drivers.

In a move which could greatly enhance its industrial muscle, the train drivers' union, Aslef, has decided to become a clearing house, matching drivers to companies and taking a fee from the operators. The highest-paid drivers already earn up to £38,000 ayear on the service between Gatwick and Victoria and Aslef intends to raise pay throughout the industry.

The union is likely to press ahead with its scheme - believed to involve the Manpower agency - if the movement fails to prevent privatisation.

At the moment British Rail tries nationally to match applicants for transfers with vacancies, but the union is keen to create an organisation to continue the service after the sell-off.

Aslef, with 14,000 members working for BR, could use the agency as a weapon in industrial conflicts because the union would have control over the supply of drivers. More than 40 train operators could replace BR.

The union has drawn up a strategy to "pick off" the operators one-by-one in order to improve its members' wages and conditions.

The union could choose to target the showpiece Gatwick service for industrial action, while supporting strikers with a levy at other companies. Aslef would then switch its attentions to another operator and adopt the same strategy.

Its second highest paid members work for London Underground where they are on salaries of more than £24,000 a year. Drivers on the international European Passenger Service, which runs through the Channel tunnel, earn £21,250. Aslef believes that employees on the inter-Continental run, who have to learn French and familiarise themselves with the rail systems in France and Belgium, will be keen to catch up with their tube-driving colleagues.

Privatisation, however, could also lead to the refusal of management to negotiate with unions over pay and working conditions. Big companies buying into the industry would have the resources to buy out union recognition by offering drivers a lump sum to sign individual contracts. The Hanson Group, led by the Conservative-supporting Lord Hanson, is believed to be interested in buying eight train operating companies.

Aslef last week put in an "inflation-plus" wages claim on behalf of their 16,700 members on BR, London Underground and the light rail system in the Tyne valley.

More than three-quarters of Aslef members have registered their backing for industrial action if the last negotiations with BR before privatisation fail.

Lew Adams, general secretary of Aslef, said his members had become increasingly angry about the "greed" of senior executives in privatised companies.

"We intend to do the best we can for members and we will obviously maximise any opportunity within each of the train operating companies. If that means setting one train operator against another, so be it. We've been placed in this position by the Government and we have no alternative but to exploit it."