Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1082/30615
London Transport workers fighting private companies and TfL to secure health and safety
A life and death battle on the buses
At the time of writing, 21 transport workers in London have died from coronavirus, 15 of them bus drivers. London bus driver and Socialist Party member Moe describes how he and his fellow drivers have battled with the private bus companies and Transport for London to secure proper protection.
Transport for London (TfL - an arm of the Greater London Authority under the jurisdiction of London Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan) and some bus operators met at the start of the crisis. Only a few agreed to pay drivers company sick pay from day one. Other operators agreed only Statutory Sick Pay. Khan told the press there was "no risk" of catching coronavirus on the tube.
When Boris announced the belated lockdown bus drivers realised that the threat was real. Locally at depots, drivers stopped hand-shaking, but there were no hand sanitisers. Bus depots ordered sanitisers and soap, but kept running out.
Services were put onto weekend services on weekdays; this meant longer hours and shorter breaks. Bus drivers are unable to find somewhere to eat, often starving for 12 hours. We return home to a family frightened of the disease.
The interests of the bus drivers were not a priority, companies were more concerned about long-term financial loss. Health and safety reps were not released to allow inspections, auditing and reporting; instead the companies forced them to drive a bus. Through our campaigning, this demand has now been won.
Some bus drivers were abroad when the lockdown came into effect. These drivers are stranded without pay. None of the companies have made any effort to ensure their wages and jobs are protected; instead, they have forced annual holidays and unpaid leave on them.
Drivers who already have medical conditions and fall under the category of 'high risk' are being forced to return to work. They are meant to take 12 weeks off shielding, but bus companies have refused to pay company sick pay.
The Mirror exposed that one driver, who subsequently died, was told by his company he would lose pay if he didn't work. We have now finally won company sick pay from day one.
After two weeks, we started to hear about the rising number of deaths of drivers around London. One death was too many, and drivers started to complain to management and their union leaders, and demand protection.
More drivers joined the 'Bus Drivers in London' Facebook group of Unite union activists. We are now close to 4,000 members, that's nearly 20% of drivers in London.
Drivers demanded deep cleaning of the cabs. We were worried about the speaker holes in the assault screen, and took our own measures, starting to Clingfilm over the holes to prevent the virus coming through.
As a result of drivers posting this on social media, it came to public attention and exposed the companies' failure to act promptly. Unite demanded Perspex film be fitted, and this happened.
Drivers were worried about passengers sitting close to or standing adjacent to the driver. They started to tape off the front area.
However, in one company management continued their bullying and put a notice out threatening disciplinary action. But this didn't work because of pressure from workers and the notice was taken down. TfL then supported the union members' demands to cordon off the seats near to the driver.
When the number of driver deaths from Covid-19 reached five, Unite leaders came under pressure to report them. Sadiq Khan had to answer to the public.
Many drivers and bereaved family members appeared on the news. NHS workers gave messages and videos of mutual support and solidarity. Three weeks after the lockdown, hand sanitiser was deployed.
The mayor said that an enhanced cleaning regime and Perspex film were in place, but the drivers didn't trust management or Khan because the bus cabs were still dirty. Drivers were cleaning them themselves, and some were sealing the front door. Courageous acts were shared on social media among drivers - now it was nine drivers who had passed away.
Companies with the most deaths started to furlough the most vulnerable and high-risk drivers. In other companies, drivers are saying: "Do our colleagues have to die before furloughing agreements are signed off?"
Some drivers are saying that because of the poor working conditions the number of drivers that fall into the 'increased risk' category is high, and bus companies do not wish this fact to be exposed.
As a result of our campaigning, one depot is trialling sealing off the front doors. But drivers across London were outraged that it was only one, and continue to demand that front doors be sealed off. Some drivers have taken matters into their own hands to protect themselves.
In the depot, management aren't adhering to social distancing; markings are still not being drawn despite drivers complaining of this.
Drivers still have not been provided with masks, and Sadiq Khan is defending WHO and PHE guidance that there is 'no evidence' of the need for protection. But a driver at the wheel, when they sneeze, won't be able to stop droplets going everywhere because he must remain in control of the bus.
Many drivers are now demanding buses are taken off the roads until it is safe. They don't trust their employers and Khan to protect them. Some drivers are already refusing to attend work on the grounds of safety.
The Socialist Party has always argued that buses be publicly owned with workers' democratic control. This pandemic has exposed how the capitalist system exploits bus workers, including cleaners, engineers and local supervisors.
There is rage and anger among bus workers, and Unite should lead the way and fight for its members for safety now, and to bring buses back into public ownership.
We also need to remove outsourced cleaning contractors and bring the workers back in-house in a publicly owned industry with workers democratic control and management.
- Deep cleaning
- Seal the front doors
- Full pay
If these measures are not put in place, then drivers will conclude they have no choice but to declare it is unsafe to take the buses out.
An urgent review must be conducted, involving trade unions and drivers, to establish the level of service necessary and safer alternatives to transport NHS and other essential workers.
The fight for a safe underground service
Jared Wood, RMT national executive committee (personal capacity)
Most RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport union) members on London Underground want to keep an emergency service running for essential workers. The vast majority of tube workers remain at work.
The RMT told London Underground and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, that to be able to achieve a reliable emergency service our members must be able to maintain social distancing, and work in such ways that minimise the risk of infection.
At a senior level, many assurances have been given, and the service level has been massively reduced to allow for fewer staff in work at any given location.
But problems persist, caused by a failure of senior management to take all necessary action, and by a layer of middle managers who cannot understand that now is not the time to pursue petty battles and bully staff.
Of all these issues, the refusal of London Underground (LUL) to provide masks is likely to become an issue that could seriously impact on running the tube.
Like their TfL masters, the Underground's managers insist that Public Health England (PHE) does not recommend using masks. But the PHE advice is based on an assumption of social distancing.
RMT members on the tube have to perform roles where this is just not possible. Members working at (still) busy stations cannot always maintain two-metre distance from the public, nor can train drivers dealing with an incident on a train.
Maintenance staff need to carry out two-person lifts and share some equipment. Incredibly, some managers still instruct our members to leave control rooms and stand out in the public areas for the sheer hell of it. Management just do not engage with unions around this issue, preferring to repeat PHE advice to people who are able to maintain distancing at all times.
The biggest problems occur during the new, earlier, rush hour. The morning peak has moved forwards to about 6.30 to 7.30am, and RMT members report that the bulk of it is comprised of construction workers.
No blame should be attached to these workers, who will not be paid if they don't go to work. Instead, the government must take responsibility for this.
All non-essential construction must be stopped, and the wages of all construction workers, including the self-employed, must be guaranteed by the government.
London Underground also has to do more to protect people who are vulnerable and at increased risk of serious illness, should they be infected with coronavirus. It is common for private sector employers who are furloughing part of their workforces to prioritise furloughing vulnerable workers.
Yet London Underground persists in pressuring some vulnerable staff to keep working in high-risk environments.
A major concern of many members is the threat of taking the virus home. London Underground's solution to this is to offer five days special leave. What use is that?
RMT advice to members is clear. If asked to do something unsafe or work in an environment where they cannot maintain social distancing as recommended by PHE, members must exercise their right, under law, to be removed from danger.
Where members have done this, management response has usually been to address the concerns. Of course, we shouldn't have to force the issue to get basic PHE advice adhered to by employers.
Refusals to work could increase rapidly if LUL does not do more to avoid unnecessary exposure of our members to risk.
Members are rightly proud of the service they continue to provide. They want to be able to transport NHS staff, care workers, other transport workers and all genuinely key workers, as safely as possible.
But they don't want to keep the construction industry going to protect the profits of multinational developers and their City backers. The least they expect, and should expect, is for their bosses to do everything possible to minimise risk.
- Provide PPE now
- Close down all non-essential construction sites
- Effective measures to protect all vulnerable staff or those who live with vulnerable people
- Take action against managers who refuse to implement social distancing
- For a coordinated trade union oversight of safety on TFL services
We need socialists in City Hall
Nancy Taaffe, Waltham Forest Socialist Party
London is the epicentre of the UK coronavirus crisis. It's a label none of us want. The city has become a scary and dangerous place, especially if you're one of the 'key workers' - who yesterday weren't worthy of a pay rise or job security, but are now pushed onto the frontline without adequate protection but told they're 'heroes'.
One nurse summed it up: "Please don't call me a hero, I'm being martyred against my will."
This statement accurately reflects the growing lack of faith in establishment leaders who have acted too late and put the interests of business and the City of London finance hub before the interests of the working class. Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan is included in this.
The mayor's office should have started a programme to confront the virus after Christmas. A socialist mayor would have advocated this. We could have had the public information campaign straight out of the traps.
A socialist plan for London would have sourced PPE in a coordinated way with the rest of the country.
We could have switched the light industrial units that surround outer London to making PPE and other socially useful products. This would have absorbed those without work.
A socialist plan would have made the ventilators, fired up a testing programme and had the city on a war-footing to fight the first battle against the virus. The whole country needed it not to spread out from London. We needed a decisive, confidence-inspiring, planned approach - a socialist approach.
Instead, the word 'chaotic' doesn't even come close to describing what's happened. We were told to 'use the tubes but watch where you put your hands'.
When the lockdown began, workers had to keep working in the construction industry because companies wanted to keep making profits. The transport network was reduced to a limited service, so workers are travelling in even more cramped conditions.
Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, has been about as useful as a Tory prime minister. He has been invited to Cobra meetings. But Khan has never confronted the passivity of the government.
In the face of impending economic catastrophe he says: "Cities around the world need to pull together". By this he means pulling together with his big business counterparts, not mobilising an almighty fight to ensure the working class does not pay further for the crisis.
Khan is a Blairite defender of free-market economics, who previously stated he wanted more billionaires in London, along with opposing a Tory tax on the likes of Amazon and Google - such a tax could have bought us mountains of PPE.
We will not forgive, and we will not forget the unnecessary loss of life. We will fight all we can against the attempts to make workers' pay for the economic crisis.
That should include a political challenge in the postponed London Assembly and mayoral elections next year. Let's fight to get socialists into City Hall.
In The Socialist 14 April 2020:
What we think
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