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Mick Whelan: 'I didn’t need to open the deal to know my members won’t accept it'

Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, on the picket line at Euston in February 2023 (Credit: Mark Thomas/Alamy Live News)

11 min read

Sienna Rodgers talks to Mick Whelan, leader of train drivers’ union Aslef, about the ongoing strikes, how relations with ministers became strained and his changing view of Keir Starmer

We are almost two years into the longest UK rail strike in history, and there is just one union still holding out for a better offer: Aslef. 

Whereas transport union RMT ended its long-running dispute by coming to an agreement in November, albeit one its leader Mick Lynch describes as “not a good deal”, Aslef’s train drivers – who can afford to strike for longer – are pushing on with continued industrial action. 

“We’ve all got Keir’s personal phone number; we’ve got access to him. It’s not a problem”

Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, says his members have consistently voted for strike action with ballots returning 94 to 99 per cent in favour. But the union leader also tells The House he hasn’t read the email setting out the deal that was sent to him back in December 2022. It is sitting in his inbox, unread.

“I still haven’t opened it. Not to this day,” Whelan says. Incredibly, he only knows what’s in the deal thanks to media coverage and the questions he has been asked about it.

“To summarise the deal: if you give up every agreement you ever make nationally, give up every agreement you’ve ever made locally, and agree not to negotiate on behalf of your trade union in the future, we’ll give you a 20 per cent pay cut. I didn’t need to open the deal to know that my members won’t accept it.”

Whelan explains that he once ended up in the High Court because the litigant had said he had read an email – “they forget I’ve got two or three people that have access to my emails” – and ever since he is careful about what he opens. He is also aggrieved at the way the deal came about.

After six months of talks in 2022, there was a natural break over the Christmas period. Whelan says he was informed that rail minister Huw Merriman was going to facilitate the talks. “That’s great,” the Aslef leader thought. When the Rail Delivery Group and ministers then asked to meet earlier than his 6 January appointment with Merriman, it came as a surprise, and Whelan refused – there were strikes on, after all.

“On the day before New Year’s Eve, Keith [Aslef’s press officer] rang me at 3.40 in the afternoon and said, ‘The Mail, the Telegraph, the Sunday Express would like to know what you think of the deal’. Excuse me for a moment: ‘what fucking deal?’,” says Whelan, silently mouthing the question as he recounts the conversation. He later saw the deal had been sent to him 10 minutes before being released to the press. Whelan describes the whole episode as an act of “total bad faith”.

By the time the Aslef board met, members had read about the deal in the media and expressed their view. “We’ve got a building full of resolutions from the branches: ‘Don’t you dare ever sign anything like that, we’ll cut your throat,’ basically,” the general secretary recalls.

“I met with Mr Merriman that Monday morning. He said, ‘How are things?’ I said, ‘You’ve only been facilitating two minutes, it’s gone back 10 months.’ He said, ‘Will it form a template for the future?’ I said, ‘No, when we get round to it in nine days’ time, we’ll reject it. All of it will be off the table. We’ll start again.’”

Whelan has only met Transport Secretary Mark Harper once, in December 2022. He talked about the experience of train drivers pre- and post-pandemic, noting they worked during Covid, risking their health, and had no pay rise.

“I don’t believe I was rude or unprofessional,” Whelan says of his conversation with Harper. “Next day it appeared in the Mail that he didn’t like my tone… My experience of Mark Harper is he fundamentally, obviously, doesn’t like me or he wouldn’t brief to the Mail. I haven’t seen him since.” He hasn’t seen Merriman since January 2023, nor the employer since April last year.

This is not a typical level of engagement, stresses Whelan, who has been Aslef general secretary since 2011. 

“In normal political cycles, you meet your minister a couple of times of year, so they can say he’s met with the trade unions, and you can get a few gripes off your chest. Occasionally you might achieve something,” he says. “I found the easiest to deal with was Patrick McLoughlin [transport secretary under David Cameron] because he immediately said yes or no. I can deal with yes or no.”

With Labour expected to win the next election, how soon after polling day is he expecting the dispute to be resolved? “I don’t know,” Whelan replies. He hopes a Labour government would tell the operators to “sort it out sooner rather than later”. 

However, referring to Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh, he adds: “I’ve had no discussion with Lou or anybody else about our dispute, other than to brief them as you would do on where we are… We deliberately wouldn’t have those conversations because we don’t want it becoming an issue in the run-up to an election.”

Mick Whelan
2023 Mick Whelan leaves the Department for Transport after a meeting between rail unions and minister Huw Merriman (PA Images / Alamy)

This union leader is clearly happy with Labour right now, particularly as the party has just confirmed its plans to renationalise the railways. “It’s a very good policy – I’m very proud to be a part of it,” he says.

Is he disappointed Labour is not pledging to nationalise rolling stock companies as well as train operating companies? Not really, Whelan suggests, pointing out that the small print in Labour’s proposal also pledges to create a national freight operator, which means “leasing the trains might be a finite thing”.

And what of Labour’s “new deal”, a set of radical policies to bolster workers’ rights from day one? What does he make of reports the party leadership is rowing back even further on the plans?

“Hasn’t happened yet. That’s all I can say,” Whelan replies. “The conversations that we’ve had, and Keir’s publicly come out in the last few weeks supporting the new deal. Nobody, at this moment in time, as far as I know, is trying to water it down.”

Shortly after the interview, Unite the Union says the latest version of the “new deal” is “unrecognisable” compared to the original proposal, but Aslef declines to comment further. Sources say the affiliated unions are working to improve the policies rather than criticise the leadership, and Unite later joins that approach too. There may be concerns but, with a Labour government likely on the cards, even left-wing union leaders are holding their tongue in public.

Asked about his relationship with Keir Starmer, Whelan says: “I can argue that his version of Labour policies isn’t quite mine. There again, we’ve all got the same endgame: we need a Labour government in power.”

Does he get enough face time with him? Labour MPs often complain they don’t. “We’ve all got Keir’s personal phone number; we’ve got access to him. It’s not a problem,” he replies.

When Whelan met with The House two years ago, he was openly critical of Starmer, saying he didn’t know what was sacred to the Labour leader. Does he have a better understanding of that now?

“I think he’s become a better politician,” the general secretary replies. “Look, politics is the art of the possible, isn’t it? It’s very difficult to… Jeremy is a great friend, and I loved everything that was in the ‘17 and ‘19 manifesto. I make no bones about it. How then, after 15 years, do we move towards those things? It’s about being able to do it in a staged way. That’s what Keir is doing.”

Whelan is happy to express reservations on behalf of MPs who have been shut out of the party, however. 

He is glad Andy McDonald, the former shadow transport secretary who had the whip suspended after calling for “all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea” to “live in peaceful liberty”, was recently let back in. The MP had “made a statement out of passion”, the Aslef boss says, and “immediately apologised”. “Not quite sure why Diane Abbott has not had the whip back yet,” he adds.

And will it be difficult for Whelan not to support Jeremy Corbyn if he stands in his seat as an independent, as expected? “Yes. Jeremy’s a friend and I made it quite clear that I think the whip should be restored to him. That hasn’t happened… Having had my view and made it, the rulebook of the Labour Party has always been clear: you have to support the Labour candidate. So, we don’t have a choice.”

As chair of Tulo (Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation), Whelan co-ordinates Labour’s 11 affiliated unions. It has been a tumultuous time for two of them: GMB and TSSA have both had independent reports in recent years revealing shocking findings of sexual harassment and bullying within their organisations. 

Whelan comes to the defence of the union leaderships in how they have responded. “It’s quite right that people come under scrutiny,” he says, but adds sympathetically: “Cultures don’t change overnight.” 

On TSSA, where GMB-organised staff allege a “culture of bullying, harassment and victimisation”, Whelan says: “I’m led to believe there are issues between the staff union and the trade union. But part of that has been because nobody has been expected to go back into the workplace for the last four years and, all of a sudden, they’ve been asked to do so.

“So how much of that has been seen as ‘you’re now forcing us to do something we don’t want to do and bullying’, or actually the organisation – who’ve now got a female general secretary – is saying ‘we need to get back to work in a different way to serve our members’, I’m not sure. The truth may be somewhere between the two.”

Whelan has acted to guard against a #MeTu (the trade union version of #MeToo) scandal arising at Aslef. “As soon as the problems happened elsewhere, we put an immediate process in place,” he says. “We’ve changed codes of conduct for meetings, delegations for staff, made it easier to report people like me. And we did that very, very quickly.”

Is he confident, then, that he won’t see such problems come to his union? “Any individual can behave badly. But what you don’t want is a culture where you encourage it, where you embrace it, or you hide it. So, we have done as much as we can. And it’s reviewable,” he replies. “I’m not going to pretend everything is perfect. We’re a male-dominated trade union.”

Whelan regularly releases an independent report, On track with diversity, highlighting how few women, young people and ethnic minorities they have working as train drivers. He is on a mission to drive down the driving age, which is currently 21 for the main lines, to 18. 

“Women plan their lives a different way. If the average age of somebody coming into train driving is 34, how many women are going to change career at 34? They’re not,” he explains. “I want less people looking like me.” As his press officer puts it: “We’d like people at the pointy end of the train to reflect the communities we serve.”

Whelan had a traditional, working-class upbringing in London. Born in 1960 to Irish parents, it was “very much the era of ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’”, and he experienced anti-Irish prejudice at the time. It wasn’t until he went to school in Fulham that he realised they were poor, however. (Coincidentally, Mick Lynch attended the London Oratory, a Catholic comprehensive, too – but being two years apart, the boys didn’t know each other. The pair also lived on the same Paddington council estate at different times.)

Whelan’s mother was a supervisor at Tesco’s, having started on the tills; his father a bricklayer who believed “education is everything”. “He wanted all his kids to go to good schools, go to university if they could, then whatever career path you took was up to you,” he says.

After his father was injured at work, Whelan went straight from school into bank clerking. A few years later, he fell into the rail industry when he turned up for a job interview at British Rail seeking a clerk position advertised in the local paper. 

“Why do you want to be a guard?” he was asked. “I don’t,” Whelan replied. “I’ve come for the accounts job.” “Oh dear. We filled those last week,” the interviewer said. But he was accepted onto a course with a promise he’d be moved within six weeks. “And here we are 38 years later. I’m still waiting to be transferred to the clerical side,” Whelan smiles. 

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