‘You feel there is no will to resolve this’

The HR director of South West Trains, talking to Paul Nelson, gives a unique
insight into the main issues behind the ongoing strike

What is the latest position on the negotiations with the union?

We have already implemented the 2001 18-month pay deal (7.6 per cent) that
was received in wage packets last week.

We have also been talking to Acas about a way all parties can sign up for
realistic arbitration.

As you can imagine after six days of industrial action, losing £1.5 million
a day, I need some assurances that arbitration can take place in good faith. I
am looking for confirmation that arbitration will be binding and an indication
that strikes will be called off while we are in arbitration. The RMT is unable
to deliver those assurances. It will not go to arbitration, nor will it call
off disputes; and it wants arbitration to involve the case of Mr Tucker. But
our position is we cannot delegate our safety decisions to another party.

How difficult have the negotiations with the RMT been?

There is doubt we have been caught up in the political crossfire of the election
of the RMT’s general secretary. I find it absolutely amazing that at some of
the meetings, I have been sitting across the negotiating table from people who
do not work for this company and have no connections with us whatsoever.

People who do not work here are making decisions about the futures of the
people that do. When we were at Acas, I said "name the best deal in the
rail industry you have settled for and I will match it" – they refused to
do even that. Eventually you get to the point when you think there is actually
no will to resolve this dispute by negotiations. It [the RMT election] has not
helped the negotiations.

What extra training has been introduced to enable managers to act as
guards and train dispatchers during the strikes?

A professional training body has already trained 100 managers and we have
another 100 managers available to train. Full guard training takes eight weeks.
Managers covering guard duty only learn to manage the part of the route they
are working on while new guards have to learn the whole route.

We shall have up to 800 trains running on the next strike days and are on
target with management training to achieve this.

What are SWT’s recruitment plans?

We (HR) have been putting in place resources plans for both drivers and
guards and those plans must continue otherwise we will be behind. We have been
concentrating on filling guard vacancies. Our market rate pay is very
attractive which is why we have had 4,000 applications for 60 London-based
vacancies. Recruits will help to ease problems and give customers a good
service.

What is your view on the difference in pay increases between drivers and
other staff?

The parity argument (the difference in pay between drivers other SWT staff)
first raised its head here after the RMT had already settled for less with
other firms.

I take parity seriously because our staff are worried about it. We are
putting in place procedures to sit down with staff and talk about aspirations
but also look at ways their contributions can be valued. Guards are on £19,700
a year – that’s basic after training.

We are allowing people to elect what shifts they want and the pay deal
implemented is better than RMT deals elsewhere.

How has HR been deployed during the strike?

We had around eight HR managers working on platforms during strike days as
customer service staff and train dispatchers. That is from my team of 20
serving 5,000 staff. All that could be out there, were. A lot of staff did
their normal day’s work then went out and helped on the concourses. Everybody
has really pulled together.

HR staff are trained in train dispatch and customer care so we have been
able to release operational staff to be trained as guards. I have been out and
about talking to my team and staff, while the finance director was sorting out
buses at one point.

Are you concerned about the long-term impact of the dispute on morale?

Staff are genuinely concerned about morale. Those involved in the dispute
have lost six days pay and the strikes have achieved nothing other than
damaging the business, the people who work here and its customer reputation.
There are lots more positive ways forward than striking. In general terms the
last staff survey showed morale was on a very steep upwards trend.

We were putting in a lot of strategic HR initiatives and people felt the
company was going in the right direction, especially after being named as the
preferred bidder for a 20-year franchise.

There was a positive feel around the place but there is incredible loyalty
to the union.

During the strike the business loses money so has to be managed differently.

Beverley Shears has been the HR director of South West Trains for two and
a half years. Prior to 1999, she was general manager of HR of London
Underground. She performed a range of HR managerial roles in the rail sector in
the early stages of her career, including being personnel manager of the Piccadilly
line on the Tube.

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