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From The Socialist newspaper, 12 January 2006

Successful tube strike must be escalated

STRIKE ACTION by station members of RMT (Rail Maritime and Transport Workers' Union) closed 47 stations and led to severe disruption on the Northern Line, where train drivers refused to cross picket lines and also took unofficial action over the sacking of a driver on a separate issue.

Bill Johnson, RMT member

There was also widespread disruption on the Piccadilly Line as up to half of train drivers refused to cross picket lines or refused to take their trains out onto a system staffed by unqualified scab labour.

London Underground and the press have tried to portray the strike as a failure because most trains still ran. But it was never envisaged that a strike by station staff alone would shut the network down. The level of disruption caused has been serious for London Underground, who only kept key stations open and trains running by throwing away the rule book and ignoring safety regulations.

The strike action has been called because London Underground has gone back on a written agreement to introduce a shorter working week without any reduction in overall staff numbers. The agreement to introduce a shorter working week was won after RMT took strike action as part of its pay campaign two years ago.

London Underground is now trying to exclude 600 station staff positions from the agreement. The company has imposed new rosters and put the 600 positions into "displacement". Although individuals will not lose their jobs they can be transferred to a location with vacancies and the position they vacate is then abolished. Over a year or so all 600 positions could have disappeared.

Missing staff

The new rosters also leave insufficient "reserve" cover for staff who are on leave, training or off work for any reason. This means that even where London Underground accepts there should be two station assistants to help passengers at the ticket barrier, or someone to assist train operators to empty their train at the end of the line, these staff will not be there. With nine additional days off under the shorter working week and less reserve cover, missing staff will be a permanent feature at almost every station.

While the action taken by RMT members has been effective, it is now clear that more will be needed to win this key dispute.

Under direction from the mayor, Ken Livingstone, London Underground has been keen to cut staffing for several years. Livingstone and the US management team he has imported believe that London Underground is overstaffed and look with envy at the absence of station staff on the New York Subway or Paris Metro.

But staffing levels are high on the tube because it is a very old system, buried much deeper underground, and every staff position is there as part of a safety validation process. The legal framework for station safety was introduced after the Kings Cross fire in 1987. London Underground management are lobbying for these laws to be abolished.

Union leaders believe London Underground want to tame RMT before the run-up to the Olympics in 2012. The proposal to cut 600 jobs is only the start. If London Underground succeeds in cutting 600 they will be back for more. This is a dispute over the ability of RMT to resist Livingstone's anti-union agenda. A defeat for RMT would have consequences not only for staff in the stations but for every tubeworker. Safety rules would be re-written and pay and conditions eroded if management feel they have the upper hand.

Therefore it is now essential to respond with an escalation of the action. Management can keep stations open by using TSSA (Transport and Salaried Staff Association who last took strike action on the tube in 1926!) members and unqualified managers and admin workers. This dispute is too big to leave station staff to fight alone.

Bob Crow has said that drivers will now be balloted. This will probably be for action short of a strike, in effect to refuse to take trains out on strike days because the network is unsafe. This is a good step but it must be accompanied with a major campaign to explain the issues to the drivers. At the same time RMT should produce a leaflet for the public highlighting management's plans and showing how a defeat of the unions would also be a blow for passengers' safety and security.

On the Neasden picket line

I VISITED the picket at the Neasden depot and I spoke to a worker who is based at the Willesden Green station, which London Mayor Ken Livingstone uses every day.

Chris Newby

He told me that Livingstone is not popular with RMT members. RMT members helped get him elected, yet during the drivers' strike last year, Livingstone said that they might as well take the whole of the summer off!

An example of what LU proposals will mean is that Dollis Hill and Kilburn stations will not be staffed. Management say that staff at Willesden Green can cover these because it is the station in the middle. But what happens if someone falls over and is injured at these stations, how long will it be before station staff can get there?

During the strike, management tried to keep some stations open by using managers. They may have done all the necessary training originally and done some emergency training. But they haven't worked on a station for six or seven years and are not up to date with all the latest changes to regulations.

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In The Socialist 12 January 2006:

Defend the NHS

Fight back against far right

Stop the privatisation of council housing

Tuition fees repel poor students

Striking for jobs, services and rights

Successful tube strike must be escalated

Make your mind up time for Lib Dems?

For an alternative to New Labour

Democratic discussion, debate and decision-making

Priorities and opportunities in 2006

Fighting for socialist ideas world wide

109,315 - a record year for the fighting fund!

Solidarity with Tehran bus workers

After Sharon, what next?


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