Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/10165
London Underground strike - 7 September
Socialist Party members report from the picket lines
Video: London Underground strike - RMT and TSSA members speak to the Socialist Party
The power of organised working class people was demonstrated resoundingly by the strike of 11,000 London Underground (LU) workers on 7 September.
Paula Mitchell, London Socialist Party
Before dawn, driving past several tube stations on my way to Victoria in central London, there was an eerie emptiness as station after station still had its shutters down. By 6.30am though, central London was completely gridlocked. It took over two hours to drive a journey that would normally take half an hour.
Bus queues numbering in the hundreds snaked along pavements and out into the roads. Estimates are that the strike cost the London economy £50 million.
For the first time, the unions RMT and TSSA struck together. Members of both stood side by side on over 100 picket lines at stations and depots across the capital.
While LU management were making wild claims to the press about 'a third of the service running', the reality was being announced over the tannoy at Victoria station: "There is a very, very limited service running on the Victoria line and the District line." Then two minutes later: "The Victoria line is suspended".
According to the pickets, Victoria is LU's flagship station, and the Victoria line one of the most important lines, as it connects with all other lines. Strikers had expected the station to be opened by management, but by 8am it was still shut.
Train staff at Victoria mainline station and drivers from the bus station came over to give support. The "Metro man" (the Metro is a free paper given out at stations) took all his papers out of the station and came to give the pickets regular updates on what was going on inside.
Support from the public and fellow workers was high. Notwithstanding the nightmare journeys they faced - many feeling forced by bullying bosses to struggle into work - passengers stopped to take leaflets, ask for travel tips, and give their support.
Public support is high because this struggle is about public safety as well as jobs. LU want to shed 800 station staff and close ticket offices. But these workers save our lives. These are the staff we depend on if there is a fire or runaway train - and both of these things have happened in the last month.
There was an escalator fire at Euston station. It was an escalator fire at Kings Cross in 1987 that led to the horrific deaths of 60 people. According to the station staff, fire alarm systems didn't go off and the smoke was only spotted by the very staff LU want to cut.
Then in the middle of August a runaway driverless train careered through several north London stations, right behind a train full of passengers. Again it is thanks to the actions of the drivers and staff that another disaster was averted.
The pressure on London's Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, is such that he broke ranks with his own party by declaring that the Con-Dem cuts of 25-40% in London's transport budget will be "disastrous". Nonetheless he has supported the decimation of station staff, despite signing a petition against it when he was campaigning to be mayor.
Three more days of strike are planned in October and November.
Transport and Salaried Staff members at Seven Sisters (Victoria line) were happy to be on the picket line. At last they were taking strike action along with their RMT colleagues and not staffing empty stations.
Clare Doyle and Suzanne Beishon, Hackney Socialist Party
"This is the first time we have been able to be out together and the 72% vote shows the strength of feeling", said one of the women. "Jobs in the ticket offices etc are under as much threat as others working beyond the gate-line. And the safety issue affects us as well! We are trained to deal with assaults on the public, illnesses, accidents. Things will be a lot worse if they try and finish off any of our jobs."
Paul has worked for London Underground for 24 years but has never seen so much inefficiency at the top - so many people in offices. "They're forever telling us to 'think out of the box'! They've never been out of their boxes! They don't know anything about our jobs. It's all a matter of targets for them. We are supposed to do away with a simple 'common sense' approach. They talk about 'safety factors' but it is our 'common sense' that means we can act rapidly and effectively when there's an emergency. They can open the gates of a station, as some of them have done today, but no-one is going in. Today has shown in no uncertain terms that we are fighting to save our jobs and to maintain the service we have always given."
It follows that workers doing the job are the ones who should make the main decisions about how to run the service safely and efficiently. Nick, who is on the RMT Industrial Group, Blackhorse Road, pointed to the two recent emergencies on London Underground. "We've had the 'runaway' train and the escalator fire. Without experienced staff at every station, things like that could be a disaster!"
The pickets were fully utilising modern technology. Apart from regular mobile contact about where pickets were most needed, who had spare placards and when the beefburgers would be arriving, there was the blackberry with the TfL (Transport for London) website showing all lines disrupted and only the Northern line with a 'good service'. "The Northern Line are ASLEF [drivers' union] and not striking. All the other lines are out of operation today. We got a report that something was running at Brixton, but it turned out to be a false alarm" Nick told us. "Office workers who have opened stations today are not licensed, qualified or experienced to deal with paid side incidents, derailments, 'one under', evacuation, fire alert, passenger assault, passenger accident etc. London Underground opened some stations with fingers firmly crossed!"
"There is good public support", Paul insisted. "The media are playing up the disruption to commuters as usual. They had one woman on [TV] saying we should lose a week's pay for every day's strike! But we have not had a single person complain to us this morning".
There was general, angry agreement amongst the pickets that New Labour would have been implementing cuts just as vicious as the Con-Dems' cuts, if they had got in.
On the same day as the RMT-TSSA tube strike there was a general strike in France and one in India. In Britain, BA cabin crews have voted for renewed action and the London firefighters will be fighting back against redundancy notices and attacks on their work rotas. The pickets at Seven Sisters certainly feel they are not alone and are prepared to continue the fight for "as long as it takes".
London Bridge, Euston and the District line
By 10 minutes to 10pm on Monday the Hammersmith and City line had shut down. By 11pm the District line was down too and tube stations at Tower Hill, Aldgate and Aldgate East had shut.
Naomi Byron and Chris Newby
An RMT member working at a station on the District line the day before the strike said the public seemed to understand why they were striking: "Normally on a strike over pay we do get bother from some people. But this time we've not had one bit of aggro."
On Tuesday morning pickets at London Bridge were in good spirits. Every line was down except the Northern line, which was only limping along, and most of the entrances to the station were shut due to lack of staff. A TSSA picket said: "At 5am there was five of us out here on the picket line - more than there was inside the station!"
"This station has never been so solid, it's the first time we've had a picket. We've never had a strike like this, it's because we've got joint action," said an RMT picket. Picket lines at stations during tube strikes are quite unusual, and the presence of strikers giving out RMT and TSSA leaflets explaining the reasons for the strike had a good impact.
RMT picket Brian pointed out that "the travelling public are generally supportive. When people took time to stop and talk about the reasons for the strike they could see we were presenting a valid argument and doing the honourable thing."
One of the London Bridge pickets noticed new uniforms being brought in. Was this a desperate attempt by management to enlist some unsuspecting members of the public to act as station staff for the day?!
Another reflection of the support for the RMT came from listening to London radio station LBC. A normally rightwing radio presenter was forced to admit that perhaps Bob Crow and the RMT had got it right with this strike. He said that the RMT has far more of a mandate than Boris Johnson or the government has and that London Underground management could not use the argument of needing to sack staff to save costs when they are paying out big salaries and bonuses to Peter Hendy, the commissioner of Transport for London and other senior TfL executives.
RMT members leafleting at Euston station generally received a positive response from the public including a postal worker coming up to offer his support.
One RMT member said that the manager at Euston underground station had said that he did not know how he was going to cope with the loss of five station staff which is what would happen if London Underground and Boris Johnson get their way.
RMT union members picketed outside the Arnos Grove tube depot, north London, from 9pm on 6 September, marking the beginning of the 24 hour tube strike.
Stephen Turnbull and Bob Severn
The workers said how the planned station staff cuts would affect safety supervision.
The picketers returned at 4.30am the following morning. However, a parade of increasingly senior policeman seemed intent on keeping Socialist Party members separated from the picketers on the grounds of 'causing an obstruction'.
Socialist Party members joined RMT members on their picket line at Liverpool Street station. The strength of the strike meant that none of the four tube lines running through Liverpool Street - Central line, Circle line, Metropolitan line and Hammersmith and City line - were operating, meaning management were unable to open one of the busiest underground stations in London during the morning rush hour.
The pickets received support from many passing workers who congratulated them on taking action. Some staff who work in sections of the station not covered by the strike arrived early so they could spend time on the picket line supporting the strikers before going to work.
One passenger did not support the action, repeating some of the lies about tube workers he had heard from the right wing press. But workers explained the reasons behind the strike and gave concrete examples of the dangers of cutting staff. These included a recent incident of management allowing packed trains to continue running while police checked a suspicious package, and another where an off-duty worker spotted someone in the station with a samurai sword! The passenger was convinced and wished the workers success in their dispute.
The RMT and TSSA strike action in Loughton, Woodford and throughout the east of the Central line was solid and well supported. One member of TSSA on the Loughton picket told us that this was the first time his union had taken strike action on the underground since 1935 and that it was about time too!
The strikers explained their first-hand experience of having to deal with safety-related issues, on the nightshifts in particular, and how the cuts would make this next to impossible. One told us how his son, who works on the gates at Moorgate, had turned away and disarmed someone trying to get on the tube with a samurai sword this weekend. When the police arrived to pick him up, it turned out he was also carrying two loaded firearms! Yet this lad and others like him are facing the cut.
The Moorgate incident has been highlighted by the RMT in their press releases, as well as the recent Euston escalator fire, which was another tragedy narrowly averted by a worker whose grade could be cut back.
But management's blatant disregard for the health and safety of their staff and the public was shown, not just by the cuts they pursue, but by how they handled the strike day itself. Trains were sent through multiple closed stations, in some cases seven or eight completely closed stations, before reaching a useable stop. Fire regulations state that if three consecutive tube stations are closed, it constitutes a severe safety threat and the whole line should be suspended.
But for the managers, the safety of the public is a minor concern compared to their desire to play down the impact of strike action. Trains were sent along the Central line from Epping purely so TfL could say 'the Central line is running'.
Managers were piled into the far end of the Central line to work and try to avoid the embarrassment of having to close the line altogether. But commuters who thought they were in for a smooth ride got a shock when the lack of staff meant they were all turned out of a train in Leytonstone. We got word on the Loughton picket that commuters forced off at Leytonstone had to climb over barriers and security fences to escape the station.
RMT and TSSA members are striking to ensure safety for commuters, whereas TfL management have played fast and loose today with people's health and lives.
The pickets were determined and if management does not back down with its threats to cut jobs, they will be back out just as solidly next month. Socialist Party strike bulletins were well received on the pickets and several copies of the Socialist were bought.