David Aaronovitch: So who will win the War of Skiggs's Mobile?

'Comrade Skiggs is an RMT shop steward whose irons are almost always hot'
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The Independent Online

You won't be reading this on the 7.20 into Waterloo, and that may be thanks – in no small part – to Mick Skiggs. I could try for a thousand years and not come up with a better comic name for a far-left union activist than Mick Skiggs.

Anyway, commuters forced to drive, walk, fly or crawl to work because of the 48-hour strikes affecting South West Trains can reflect that they are casualties in the War of Skiggs's Mobile. To an extent. Comrade Skiggs is a Portsmouth-based shop steward for the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union. At some point last year Skiggs was spotted hanging out of a coach door (the train was stationary at a platform) speaking to someone on his mobile phone. This is not permitted for a variety of corporate safety and aesthetic reasons, and Skiggs was given a final warning.

The case of Skiggs was not the only reason for war. His fellow militant – a former executive member and Waterloo-based branch secretary of the RMT, Greg Tucker – has also been in trouble. Tucker, a driver, had exceeded the 90mph speed limit on a section of track. He says it was by 6 mph and only for a very short time. The company, citing "repeated safety-related incidents" rusticated him from driving and demoted him to ticket collection for at least a year.

The RMT say it's victimisation, the company say it's safety. The RMT complains that other, much worse cases have been treated more leniently. I couldn't find out what the company's reply is. However, the RMT has pushed for an independent scrutiny of disciplinary decisions and the company has conceded this. And given that the two men have recourse to employment tribunals, why on earth should the union make this a striking issue?

An RMT spokesman told me that the decisions of employment tribunals weren't binding on employers. True, I said, but if the cases were won by the comrades, and the company then ignored the judgments, wouldn't that make the argument for a strike much more compelling? Ah, he replied, but you "have to strike [sic] when the iron is hot".

Tucker and Skiggs are the sort of people who do tend to get victimised. Tucker is a member of one of the more devout Trotskyist sects, and it is practically his duty to bring the working classes into struggle at every useful opportunity. Which is a pain for managers. Skiggs, like Tucker, is a supporter of the Socialist Alliance, whose radical programme for Britain polled 152 votes at the Ipswich by-election a few weeks back, well behind the pro-cannabis candidate.

Their irons are almost always hot. Tucker was a leader of the "no red waistcoats" strike on South West Trains last spring. He won. And there was also the "Stuff your Kit Kats" campaign. The company had argued that technology had made the old guard duties obsolete, and had pointed to their disappearance on other lines. But action was taken and, as Bob Crow of the RMT said at the time, "This is a fundamental victory for our members – they will have to get someone else to sell Kit Kats."

Mixed in with the Skiggs/Tucker row, is the pay dispute. SWT has said that its latest offer to non-driving train crew is worth 15 per cent over three years. There is also to be a cut in hours in year three. The RMT's position is that these crew should get the same increase as drivers – something like 8 per cent over 18 months. "Why," one official repeatedly asks, "should they get a worse deal when they work every bit as hard and are equally as loyal as other employees?"

Um. Because nearly functionless guards aren't quite as important as the people that drive the trains? And if that sounds so unfair, why has the union rejected calls for independent arbitration? How "loyal" and "hard working" is it to strike when there are unexhausted avenues available to you?

These repeated gaseous explosions coming from the rotting body of our railway system have inflamed existing hopes and worries of militancy redux. Dave Prentis of Unison is supposed to be more militant than his predecessor, Rodney Bickerstaffe. And Mark Serwotka, new leader of the CPS civil servants union, is another Socialist Alliance man. Together with the GMB's John Edmonds, their preferred battleground – their coming war – is supposed to be over private involvement in the NHS.

Actually, Edmonds is a very different sort of warrior. At no stage has he been promising industrial action to thwart government plans. Instead he has labelled any kind of private incursion into the NHS as being "privatisation" (the same stick that New Labour used to beat the poor old Tories with), and sought to threaten the PM where it hurts, in the ballot box and the party purse. "Blackmail is an ugly word, Tony," says John as he announces cuts in party funding.

GMB press releases are a Gorgon's head of spurious polling statistics. "Ninety per cent don't like privatisation", "60 Labour MPs at risk" – including Estelle Morris – if there's any more private nonsense in our nice, pure health service. This week a GMB spokesman let it be known that his union might accidentally not care if union members campaigned for opposition candidates who opposed "privatisation". "These things 'appen, Tone," implies Reggie Edmonds, who has also called for the May council elections to "become a referendum on the Government's plans".

I asked a GMB bloke if their opposition was as absolute as it appeared. "No," he replied, "Bringing in sensible external management, for example, is not the most stupid idea in the world. A lot of this is posturing. But the Government started it. They corral the Essex vote by saying they're going to take on the unions, and our members are beginning to believe it." He thinks the Government is being silly eating up goodwill while the time for improvement runs out. "We can talk," he says.

Good, because he also agreed there was a feeling that the only argument in town was now between the tax-and-spend people and the tax-even-more, spend-even-more people. "We lack the discipline of there being a strong Conservative Party," he said. But if Labour fails to deliver on public services, partly because of union resistance, it is not likely that the Liberal Democrats will be chief beneficiaries.

Perhaps it is true that New Labour has not made it easy for unions. Perhaps it couldn't. An illustration of the difficulties was provided last November when poor Estelle Morris called for classroom assistants to be given an enhanced role. An excellent idea said the GMB – which represents many of these assistants. It was handing education to "peasants", said Nigel de Gruchy, of the second largest teaching union.

True, militancy tends to do best when there is a real grievance. At SWT there was a three-to-one vote for strike action on a 70 per cent turn-out. This argues poor industrial relations that go well beyond an engine shed-load of revolutionaries in the local union. But last week, on successive days, I heard Fred Broughton, of the Police Federation, and Geoff Martin, the hard-left London convenor of Unison, talking about why they opposed change in the police and the NHS respectively. And you never could have told which was which.