RMT v Johnson: Union prepares to defend London Underground

Tube workers have power to beat Johnson

RMT members protesting outside London's Euston station, photo Paul Mattsson

RMT members protesting outside London’s Euston station, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The RMT London tube workers have voted by 77% in favour of action against the brutal attack on jobs and terms and conditions by London Underground, TfL management and Tory Mayor Boris Johnson hoping to have his ‘miners moment’.

The Socialist Party gives its full support to the RMT and its members and welcomes the decision of TSSA to also ballot its members, posing the prospect of joint strike action, starting with two 48-hour strikes in the first two weeks of February.

Members of drivers’ union Aslef should now be demanding that their union follows suit.

The London tube unions need to thoroughly and democratically plan each stage of their action to ensure a victory is won.

The BBC reported that over 30 days of strike action between 2005 and 2011 each cost an estimated £48 million.

Given the huge disruption a sustained tube strike could cause in London, these workers have enormous potential power and should plan to use it to its full capacity.

‘Struck out’

Last August, Tory GLA members showed their cards when they produced a report ‘Struck Out: reforming London Underground’s strike laws’ which advocated banning strikes on the Tube, to be replaced by ‘binding pendulum arbitration’.

This full frontal assault on tube workers is a serious challenge to the unions, especially the RMT which has justifiably gained a reputation as a militant union. It has delivered for its members in terms of job protection and pay.

But it appears that management have prepared for this dispute and certainly they and Cameron and Johnson have industrial and political motivations to be seen to ‘deal’ with the RMT in their strongest area, just as the Tories have tried to go after Unite following the setback at Grangemouth.

However, a key lesson of Grangemouth is to recognise that not all disputes are the same and those of such a fundamental nature as this one need to be especially well prepared for.

The three weeks until the first strike on 4 February provide vital time to prepare the ground in the stations and depots and to explain to members why they need to mobilise for these strikes and to be ready to extend the action if necessary.

Socialist Party members in the RMT have raised the need for the union to approach all other unions for discussions about building solidarity in what is likely to be the most high impact dispute in London for decades.

We also support any attempt to broaden out the front against the employers and the government but the main basis for this must be linking up with the organised trade union movement, the most powerful force against the bosses.

The recent half-day walkout by barristers and solicitors over the attack on legal aid, shows, as did the mass strike rallies on 30 November 2011, that fighting unions can attract around them wider forces, particularly in this period when a mainstream working class political alternative is lacking.

Unions must lead dispute

The RMT has launched a political campaign to supplement the action – ‘Hands Off London Transport’ (Holt).

But the dispute has to be clearly led by the tube unions themselves, and Holt’s main focus has to be to help in building support among other workers.

Union and workers’ representatives should be given priority on the platform at the Holt public rally on 16 January in London to put forward an industrial strategy.

We are calling on members of all unions to attend, to speak from the floor and bring their union banners.

We support the initial moves of the RMT to approach other unions, particularly those such as the FBU and NUT who are currently in dispute about the possibilities of coordinating action.

This can go even further to involve all unions and particularly Unite who represent over 20,000 bus workers who will be expected to transport the hundreds of thousands and more extra passengers on strike days.

Just the announcement that such discussions were going ahead would send a shiver of fear up the spine of TfL bosses with the prospect of their two main groups of workers joining together.

TfL is well aware of the power that the bus workers showed in 2012 when they won their Olympic bonus after a huge strike, including mass picket lines.

As the Socialist said, there was nothing inevitable about the defeat at Grangemouth. If a decisive lead had been given earlier, it wasn’t ruled out that support for more militant methods such as occupation could have won support, building mass pressure around the idea of the plant being nationalised.

Nor was the defeat of the miners preordained, as the Cabinet papers have proved. Thatcher feared defeat.

Given their enormous industrial strength, with preparation and a carefully worked out strategy, workers on London Underground can win this dispute.

An RMT member takes part in the Euston Station protest, photo Paul Mattsson

An RMT member takes part in the Euston Station protest, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Boris thinks he’ll have his ‘miners moment’

Two 48-hour strikes by RMT union members, starting on 4 and 11 February, will oppose Transport for London (TfL) and London Tory Mayor Boris Johnson’s plans to close all London Underground (LU) ticket offices and cut 950 staff.

These cuts are part of TfL plans to slash £9.8 billion by 2021, including £4.2 billion from London Underground.

RMT members voted by 77% for strike action on a 40% turnout. John Reid, RMT London Transport regional council secretary, told the Socialist: “We’ve had a ballot that overwhelmingly has given a yes vote for action to defend our jobs and conditions. Our sister union TSSA is balloting and hopefully we’ll be taking action with them.

“Almost 1,000 job cuts on the London Underground, with four million passenger journeys a day, predicted to rise to around five million in the next decade, will cause severe effects for passenger safety and for service to customers as well.”

Station supervisors, trained to deal with train service and station incidents, will be removed from many stations and will work as ‘roving supervisors’ covering several stations at once. This will slow down service recovery after disruption.

There will be fewer staff available to help passengers with particular requirements including the visually or mobility impaired.

LU claim that staff will be more visible, yet there will be less staff on duty. Instead of getting help at brightly-lit ticket offices, you will have to look for a member of staff among crowds in the ticket hall.

All RMT members balloted

All RMT LU members were balloted. Gary, a Piccadilly Line driver, told the Socialist: “Initially the job cuts aren’t affecting train operators, but we rely on the station staff for a number of issues.

“We have assisted dispatch – they come to our assistance in the event of accidents or ‘one unders’. Signal failures they deal with, and so it has safety implications for train operators.

“The announced cuts so far are something like 6% of what the predicted cuts are until 2021. So any train operator that thinks they’re not going to be affected by this in the long term is living in cloud cuckoo land. It’s the thin end of the wedge.”

Protesting against the proposed London Underground ticket office closures and job cuts, photo Paul Mattsson

Protesting against the proposed London Underground ticket office closures and job cuts, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

LU is already testing equipment for automatic trains with no driver, relying on technology to identify obstructions on the track.

Drivers prevent many serious accidents when they spot something out of the ordinary, help evacuate trains stuck in tunnels and can help passengers in any emergency. No technology can replace this.

LU workers hope train drivers’ union Aslef will also ballot. Gary said: “In our depot the mood is quite positive about the action.

“We’re a 90% RMT depot. Other depots have a majority of Aslef and as of yet Aslef hasn’t come on board but no doubt they’re looking at the safety implications of the job cuts and the effect that that’s going to have on their members.”

24-hour running

LU announced plans for 24-hour running at the same time as billions of pounds of cuts.

The RMT is happy to discuss 24-hour running – subject to the provision of enough staff to run the night service. But closing ticket offices will not help run the tube at night.

There will be no increase in the number of self-service ticket machines available, just longer queues.

John said: “With ticket offices not open, if the machinery breaks down in the station, where will passengers go to get a ticket? LU says well they can go to the local newsagent. But ticket offices open at 5.30am. Most newsagents don’t open until 7.30am or 8am.

“We’re not against automation. We’re not against the improvements that technology offers. Surveys show that passengers want fully staffed stations and a driver on the front of the train. And they want the sort of service that they pay good money to receive.

“We’re protesting against fare rises because you’ve already got a segregated system where the poorest might take two or three bus journeys to get into work and you have to be on a reasonable salary to travel by Underground.”

Other cuts being considered include reductions in maintenance schedules and inspections of track and trains, 500 engineering job losses, and attacks on pensions for engineering grades and TfL staff.

The fight to save LU jobs, ticket offices and conditions at work is no ordinary dispute.

Gary said: “Johnson thinks this can be his ‘miners moment’. And if he gets away with this attack on the RMT then the floodgates are going to open to attacks on any trade unions in London and nationally.

“It’s absolutely vital that we take strike action in defence of every single job. There’s no doubt about it – this is a political attack by Johnson and it has to be met with political and industrial action.”

“Not only are 1,000 posts on the line but staff remaining are going to be forced through the humiliating and degrading experience of re-applying for their own jobs – the same staff who have been hailed as heroes when the tube has faced emergency situations.

“Before the Tories start shouting the odds, they should take note of the fact that the turnout in this ballot was higher than the last mayoral and GLA elections and the vote in favour massively outstrips anything that those same politicians can even dream of in terms of a popular mandate.”

Bob Crow, RMT general secretary

Every trade unionist needs to help build this dispute

A London Underground station supervisor
Don't let Boris throw jobs down the tube!, photo Paul Mattsson

Don’t let Boris throw jobs down the tube!, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Many station supervisors face the threat of a £10,000 pay cut with just three years’ protection of earnings.

Every ticket seller and station control room assistant faces a cut of £5,000-£6,000. During a period of earnings protection, the members affected would not receive any pay rises.

In addition station staff will have their agreements on rostering and job descriptions torn up. Many details of LU’s plans are still unclear but the company has stated its intention to get rid of rostered positions, where shifts and rest days are set in a permanent pattern and staff know months in advance what duties they will be doing.

Instead, all staff would be covering up to 12 stations and would have to fit into whatever duties LU has to cover at short notice.

Many specific roles will be downgraded and performed by staff in lower-paid grades than at present.

With 953 jobs to be cut, many stations will operate with less staff. Many station assistants and supervisors will be working on their own, even during the rush hour.

Staff will not be able to respond to passengers needing help. The likelihood of conflicts and verbal abuse towards staff will rise.

RMT, working alongside other unions, has to defeat these plans. This is not just another dispute that can be settled by one or more 24-hour strikes.

The stakes are much bigger than this. RMT has named two 48-hour strikes over two weeks

We need every member, not just reps, to help convince their workmates to support the action and to picket on the day. Branches need to organise special meetings and we have to plan down to every detail.

The TSSA union, representing a minority of station staff, have now started a ballot and have indicated that they will strike alongside RMT.

This is very welcome. Unfortunately the train drivers’ union, Aslef, is not balloting. However, there are some indications that relations between RMT and Aslef are better than during previous recent disputes and RMT drivers will be talking with their Aslef counterparts and asking them not to cross RMT picket lines.

Continuous process

This campaign will have to be a continuous process of re-enforcing support among members and escalating our strike action when necessary.

A public campaign has also been launched to oppose LU’s plans. All RMT members should try to support this campaign by attending meetings and promoting it in our communities.

It is important that the campaign clearly supports the strike action and builds among other trade unions.

We need public opinion on our side so that when we strike, Johnson and TfL realise they will take the blame if the dispute continues. Public opinion is important but cannot alone win this dispute.

The RMT is already talking with other unions in dispute including teachers and firefighters. Coordinated strikes with other unions will increase the political pressure on Johnson, TfL and the government to back down.

Every trade unionist in London should seek to pass resolutions of support for our strike action and our aims.

There is an alternative

School students supporting the fight for the future of London Underground, photo Paul Mattsson

School students supporting the fight for the future of London Underground, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Restore the subsidy

The New Economics Foundation calculated that the total taxpayers’ subsidy to Britain’s four biggest banks is running at £37 billion a year.

The cuts now proposed by TfL amount to less than £0.5 billion a year. A tiny proportion of the bank subsidy could completely remove the need for TfL cuts.

A study by the Tax Justice network for the PCS union showed that £120 billion in tax revenue is not collected every year by the government.

The idea that the government cannot afford to maintain current spending on the tube system is entirely false.

London Underground receives a small government subsidy by international comparison. In 2012 LU covered 91% of its operating budget with fare revenue.

That compares with just 56% for the New York Subway (2009) and only 40% for the Paris Metro (2007). This means that public subsidies are covering a much higher share of costs in Paris and New York.

The same is true of every major urban rail system in Europe or North America. Only much smaller and more modern systems in Japan, China, Singapore and Hong Kong cover more of their budget in fares than LU.

Open the books

If LU still wants to review its spending after the government subsidy is restored then the RMT will help.

We have demanded that LU opens the books. Let workers and passengers see where the government grant and fare revenues are spent.

LU employs over 100 managers on more than £100,000 a year. The TfL commissioner got £650,000 last year while the LU managing director took £450,000.

Imposing a £100,000 maximum salary could save £15 million a year and achieve over 30% of LU’s target savings.

All outsourcing should stop, including in cleaning and maintenance. LU took on massive debts a result of the mistaken privatisation of the tube’s infrastructure.

Known as PPP (public-private partnership), this disastrous scheme wasted between £2 billion and £3 billion. Many of the firms involved still have lucrative contracts to provide services to LU.

While LU aims to save £220 million by cutting jobs, pay and conditions on its stations, they happily wasted £500 million on consultants, who all said PPP would work.

A cheap, efficient service

The London Mayor and TfL should listen to passengers and staff, not consultants and bankers who want to siphon off the public subsidy of LU for themselves.

London Underground charges double the fare per kilometre travelled than the next most expensive by international comparison (Tokyo) and more than double the fare charged in New York.

RMT will work with passengers and political/community groups for a future where public transport is run as a public service and not a business opportunity for the rich and powerful.

LU claims its vision is “a world-class Underground for a world-class city”. We believe that a world-class railway should be able to provide ticket offices and well-staffed stations.

We believe that charging twice the fare of the nearest rival is nowhere near world-class. RMT is happy to work with LU to make this slogan a reality.

The starting point should be to secure world-class funding from government – not massive cuts.

Adapted from the RMT London Transport region briefing paper, The Future of London Underground, December 2013

“Londoners need to stand shoulder to shoulder with the RMT. These cuts are an attack on a vital transport service for all who live and work in London and an attack on an important section of our trade union movement.

“Let’s join together with a coordinated campaign of strike action to defeat cuts and defend jobs, conditions and services”

Martin Powell-Davies, NUT national executive member for Inner London

“This should not be the RMT v Johnson it should be the TUC v Johnson and every trade union member should be out on strike to stop the continuing attacks on workers’ rights, pay and conditions. We need to stand together as a movement and support our brothers and sisters in the RMT in their fight to protect their members”

Joe Simpson, POA assistant general secretary

“The London Underground is a key public service for all those who live and work in London. Without it the city would come to a standstill.

Many of us pay a significant part of our salary for it and have a right to know it will be properly staffed.

The attempt to effectively end station-based staff puts our safety and wellbeing at risk all in the name of cuts.

This is a fight for us all, not just the rail unions involved. We must stand in solidarity with those under attack no matter what it takes.”

Glenn Kelly, Unison (personal capacity)

“All London trade unionists – and particularly bus workers – should be giving RMT tube staff as much support as we can.

If London Underground jobs and services are slashed, they’ll be coming for us next.

Although London buses are privatised, Transport for London (TfL) and London Mayor Boris Johnson are indirectly our bosses too.

If they try to save money by reducing bus services in the next round of cuts, our jobs will be on the line. Service cuts will affect the most vulnerable users first.

Eighteen months ago, the bus workers’ strike victory for a £500 Olympic bonus showed TfL and the bus firms are already wary of our power. Unite the union needs to prepare members for further action.

More immediately, branches can offer support and solidarity with tube workers. Say no to Johnson’s cuts!”

A London bus driver