Employment

Aslef boss Mick Whelan on train strikes, hope with Labour and why Brits must reject 'politics of envy'

'I think Rishi Sunak was probably a very good banker. I don't think he's great politician'

Mick Whelan. Credit: Aslef

British workers must reject Tory “politics of envy”, union boss Mick Whelan has urged, as a long-running dispute over train drivers’ pay continues to cripple the UK’s transport network.

Just a month after their last bout of industrial action, members of Aslef – the union representing 96% of Britain’s train drivers – are set to walk out again. 

Train drivers will conduct rolling strikes at 16 different train companies between Tuesday (7 May) and Thursday (9 May), alongside an overtime ban between 6 May and 11 May.

Aslef has been embroiled in this current dispute for 22 months. Negotiations stalled in spring 2023, when the Rail Delivery Group – which represents Britain’s private train operators – offered drivers two years of 4% pay increases, on the condition that they accept changes to their work patterns.

Speaking to the Big Issue from his Clerkenwell office, Aslef’s general secretary Whelan insists that “no worker wants to be on strike”. But drivers haven’t been given a pay rise since 2019, before unprecedented surges in inflation drove prices and bills sky-high. In our exclusive interview, he explained the reasons behind the train strikes.

The Big Issue: Why are you striking?

Mick Whelan: No worker wants to be on strike, no worker wants to lose money, nobody wants to be in this position. 

This current dispute has been going on for 22 months. During the pandemic, along with every other key worker in the country, train drivers and railway workers everywhere did their duty by their communities. We didn’t seek a pay-rise for the two years of pandemic. The cost of living was creeping up in year three, we went to our employers – and they’d signed contracts with the government not to give us a pay rise. This is the dead hand of government. We don’t work for the government or the Department for Transport. They have no role in our pay or our terms and conditions… but the private companies have done bad faith deals with them… They’re driving it behind the scenes.

All the companies that we work for made hundreds of millions of pounds in the last 12 months or more, and apply that in dividends to shareholders, while the people who haven’t had a pay rise, still haven’t had a pay rise for half a decade

Why not accept the 4% pay rise?

It’s [been] the most dishonourable, deceitful, and disingenuous process. To summarise that deal, it was: If you give up every agreement you’ve ever made the last 144 years, nationally, every agreement you’ve ever made locally. And if you give up your rights to negotiate a future we’ll give you a pay cut. [They say] ‘You were offered four and four’, but it was four and four for giving up billions and billions of pounds in productivity for nothing. The whole tactic is to freeze people out economically. We could be in this for the long haul.

Do you see a resolution to the dispute? 

I don’t see why any government would want the railways not running in the lead up to an election. We would get back to the [negotiating] table tomorrow. But we will not give up our terms and conditions for any cost. What we’re looking for is a dent in the cost of living. We do feel like we deserve a pay rise, like every worker in this country. We want a clean offer. Any terms and conditions need to come off the table. 

Have you spoken to the Labour Party about resolving the dispute on the other side of the election?

I’m not going to give the Tory Party any ammunition in the run up to the election. We have not had any discussions [with Labour] about a deal. 

Median pay for train and tram drivers is just under £59,000, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates. What do you say to people who say the drivers earn too much?

We can’t fall for the trap of the politics of envy. ‘That work deserves a pay rise, but that worker doesn’t.‘ When we’ve been in rooms, and we’ve said, ‘Well, if we don’t take a pay rise, would you give what we don’t get to the nurses or the fire brigade or the teachers?’ It goes quiet. There’s no intention of redistributing it. My argument is that nurses and everybody else should be on the same salary as we are. In this day and age, I don’t believe £30,000 is a living salary. We need a UK where work pays. 

What’s the perception of trade unions in 2024?

The Tories have reenergized new generation of people who want to be trade unionists, who want to be activists. We’ve got more public support than we’ve ever had in history, because there isn’t a household in the country that hasn’t had somebody who hasn’t been impacted by austerity or been out on strike. We do get the odd Mr Angry, but the bulk of time on picket lines it’s people bringing this cakes coffee tooting their horns, shake their hands, [saying] keep going. 

What about the minimum service legislation? 

It’s a stain on our society and a stain on our democracy if you force people to come to work when they voted to go out on strike. And logistically, it doesn’t work. [The laws] are unworkable, they’re unsafe. 

In my view, [the law] was never about providing a service to the public. This is about getting trade unions into court. The big bit of the bill which people miss is if you make any little error at all, the fine is £200,000. We know what this legislation is about. It’s about taking away the right of workers to have a voice and try and terrify people into submission. 

Will Labour’s nationalisation plans work? 

There were lots of jokes about the British Rail sandwiches, but the trains ran.

Even Maggie [Thatcher] said rail was a privatization too far. John Major [who privatised the rail] said it would drive investment. But no privateers have put any investment into any Railway Company. They haven’t built one inch of track or bought one train. If you look at their asset base, they don’t actually own any buildings, own any infrastructure, or own any trains – all they own is the decals above the door.

Mail rail and utilities should come back, that’s what I believe. It’s about how they come back. [Under Labour’s plan], when the contracts run out, you take the [franchise] back into control for nothing. 

What about the rolling stock – the trains themselves? They won’t be nationalised under Labour’s plan.

The venture capitalists own all the trains, and there are costs and legal problems of taking that back overnight. I think a government in future will buy its own trains… but that’s a long term process.

What do you think of Keir Starmer?

We don’t always agree… But he’s been openly advocating the new deal for Labour, which I think is transformative. And I believe will work and will actually benefit workers and employers alike. 

What do workers and their unions need from the major parties in the event of a general election?

People need hope and aspiration. If I look at the Tory party at the moment, they’ve got two policies. One is pro-motorist, and anti-green, including transport. And the other one is just anti-migration. All we see is, ‘We finally got the Rwanda bill through.’ I mean, if you send someone to Rwanda who is gay, they will die. It isn’t going to stop the tragedies. It’s not going to stop the criminal gangs. It’s just headline grabbing.

What do you think of Rishi Sunak?

I think he was probably a very good banker. I don’t think he’s great politician. I don’t think he’s great visionary. He doesn’t have the support of his own party. And when you’ve got people in your party, openly consorting with fascists and Nazis in various groups and platforms across Europe, I think it tells you where his priorities lie.

What drives your politics?

I’m the son of immigrants. my parents were Irish, they came over in ‘59. And back then, in the 60s in London, it wasn’t a very nice place. In most places, if you went to try and stay it said ‘no Blacks, no dogs, no Irish.’

And the sort of work that was available wasn’t the best quality of work. So my dad worked in construction, and my mum worked in shops. I had a happy childhood but a poor childhood. 

I went to a slightly better class of secondary school than I went to primary school, though, then found out I was poor, because where I lived, we all had nothing. That never gave me politics of envy, it gave me politics of aspiration. I thought everybody should have the right and the opportunity to move on.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Is 'edgy upstart' BrewDog now 'boring and ubiquitous' after years of scandal? Experts weigh in
BrewDog
Business

Is 'edgy upstart' BrewDog now 'boring and ubiquitous' after years of scandal? Experts weigh in

Train strikes: Rail passengers weigh in as Aslef drivers 'grind services to a halt'
train strikes

Train strikes: Rail passengers weigh in as Aslef drivers 'grind services to a halt'

Labour's workers' rights plan slammed as 'unrecognisable' and a 'betrayal' by Unite union boss
Keir Starmer Labour Levelling Up
Workers' rights

Labour's workers' rights plan slammed as 'unrecognisable' and a 'betrayal' by Unite union boss

May 2024 train strikes: Disruption as Aslef drivers walk out – here's everything you need to know
Train strikes

May 2024 train strikes: Disruption as Aslef drivers walk out – here's everything you need to know

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know