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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 May 2020

 Victoria line tube train, March 2020

Victoria line tube train during lockdown period, March 2020   (Click to enlarge)

Lack of funding and safety

Transport workers and passengers must not pay the price

To please their big business backers the Tories are trying to force workers back to work, regardless of whether it is safe or not to do so. As well as extending the opening of schools, increasing the capacity of the transport system, especially in London, is seen as a key plank of its 'back to work' strategy. This threatens the safety of both transport workers - over 30 of whom have already died of Covid-19, a higher rate than among doctors - and passengers.
This dangerous situation has been exacerbated by London Mayor Sadiq Khan's passive acceptance of a totally inadequate funding package from the government for Transport for London. This comes with strings attached that will compromise safety and jobs, and increase fares for passengers and commuters.

The bosses and their politicians are responsible for unsafe conditions on public transport, photo by moonjazz/CC

The bosses and their politicians are responsible for unsafe conditions on public transport, photo by moonjazz/CC   (Click to enlarge)

Jared Wood, RMT union executive committee member (personal capacity), writes:

The London mayor Sadiq Khan and Transport for London (TfL) have accepted a financial settlement that effectively gives control of the tube to the government. Having helped the Tory government to remove the subsidy for public transport in London, the mayor is now finding out that he is as expendable as transport workers themselves, once the Tories decide he is of no use to them anymore.

Tube management and the mayor know they cannot maintain social distancing and run a full service, yet they have agreed to run a 100% service in return for this rotten settlement.

Health and safety reps have been speaking with the company, to try and establish what plan there is for intensifying services and attempts to carry more people. What is absolutely clear is that there is no plan. It's completely chaotic.

There have not been risk assessments in many key areas. The company doesn't know, even now, how many trains they are going to try and run. You'd think that you would try and run a railway according to a planned timetable!

London Underground has said themselves that 13% of their capacity is the most they can possibly run while maintaining social distancing. And yet they've got no real plans in place for how they are going to control that, and prevent more people than that from coming onto the system. Their plan for maintaining two-metre social distancing is to simply go with the government's rewording and recatergorise social distancing as two metres 'where possible'.

With the government and employers desperate to get the economy going again, now should have been the ideal opportunity to push for full-funding - with no strings attached. But according to the mayor's own public statement on funding, the government only made one offer and refused to improve on it. TfL needed 1.9 billion to run services up to the end of September, but was only offered 1.1 billion, with an additional 500 million loan to be repaid. In addition to committing to run a 100% service, TfL has also accepted a review of spending, daily reporting of absence to civil servants, and above-inflation fare increases.

The government and officials of the Department for Transport have found negotiating with the London mayor to be pretty straightforward. Sadiq Khan's whole tenure has been characterised by accepting whatever the government demands. Faced with this crisis, he had no other approach in his armoury.

But as this battle over funding moves from the corporate boardroom to the imposition of cuts, the government will face the organised workforce of TfL and London Underground. This will present them with a resistance that the mayor was never going to provide.

Having kept the tube running through this crisis, the RMT transport union will not be prepared give up anything. We will seek to work with the other unions recognised in TfL to defend members as we always do. We must defend all current jobs, terms and conditions for staff, but also link up with passenger groups to oppose fare increases and preserve travel concessions for freedom pass holders and under-18s.

On safety we've been told we can't have masks that actually protect people from infection, and we're being morally blackmailed - if we were to have N95 face masks that would take them away from the health service. Our attitude to that is, this is the fifth biggest economy in the world, why can't we produce enough 3.99 masks - which before this crisis you could buy in many shops? If you can't provide that then unfortunately you can't have your railway service.

We've given advice to members that wherever two metres can't be maintained they should refuse to do work, and withdraw themselves to a place of safety. And if that means leaving the workplace, then so be it. And the RMT has said if that means stopping trains from running, then so be it.

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted what we have always told government and the mayor. You cannot run a transport network like that controlled by TfL without government support. London is the only city of comparable size that has tried to do this. We must now fight for a publicly funded transport system. Massive savings can be found immediately by ending outsourcing and bringing core activities like cleaning and routine engineering in-house.

It must not be passengers, who already pay some of the highest fares in the world, or TfL workers, who have delivered massive productivity increases in recent years, who are made to pay the price for the collapse of the Tories' funding model.

"Feelings are very stressed at the moment and drivers are worried"

Sheffield bus driver

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, bus driving has become a very hazardous profession with, at the last count, 33 London drivers having lost their lives. In South Yorkshire there have been, to my knowledge, two deaths and a number of drivers testing positive.

Most drivers are somewhat resigned to our key-worker status - taking health workers to and from the hospitals, and providing a service for people doing their daily essentials.

There are a range of concerns for drivers, including cash handling (which is a direct source of infection for both driver and passengers receiving change), and only having perspex assault screens to mask us, which are ineffective for stopping a virus.

Unlike London buses, ours are front loaders only, which means passengers are within the two metre social distancing area. The managers have provided gloves and hand sanitiser, but no masks, which drivers bring themselves.

Another issue is duty allocation mid-crisis. There are many shift patterns from part-days to standard shifts, with a wide variety of start, finish, and break allocation. In order to fill contracted hours for drivers, we are being assigned an ad-hoc mixed bag of daily duties. This often means mixing morning starts with late starts in a single week's work, and it's leaving drivers stressed and tired with broken sleeping and eating patterns. Not great if your job is to carry passengers safely.

So feelings are very stressed at the moment and drivers are equally worried that these mixed-bag duties may indeed remain, even after the crisis as it suits the management to have us on a piece of elastic to twang back to work whenever demand peaks.

"Transport unions must work together to organise a campaign and coordinate action"

Moe, London bus driver

Transport for London's (TfL) financial settlement with the government is an attack on workers and could lead to further privatisation, risking jobs, safety, pay, terms and conditions.

In 2015, George Osborne, then Tory chancellor, announced 600 million annual cuts to TfL and nil funding from 2020. The Socialist Party at the time knew that this would mean further cuts. TfL implemented cuts to bus routes affecting vulnerable members of the public, workers were working longer hours and jobs were cut.

Had a campaign to fight the cuts been organised at that time, London bus workers would have been in a stronger position to fight the cuts during this pandemic.

But it is not too late. Transport unions must work together to organise a campaign and coordinate action. We need to fight for a publicly owned, fully integrated transport system, with democratic workers' control and management.

Action organised by tube and bus workers at the moment over safety can also support those workers and passengers who are being bullied to return to work. Buses and tubes are packed and anyone under the age of 18 is now being asked to pay.

Over 60s are being asked not to travel, and disabled people may be restricted to travelling only at off-peak times. Johnson says people should drive to work instead of using public transport but the congestion charge is being raised from 11.50 to 15 and extended to 10pm during the week and to weekends.

Prior to the pandemic, Unite was prepared to fight against fatigue, when workers overwhelmingly supported strike action across London, but the pandemic postponed it. Workers must not now be forced to work longer hours. There should be more buses and more bus workers.

Bus capacity should be reduced by an agreed amount, the front doors must not be opened.

After many bus drivers were killed by Covid-19, we managed to force TfL to seal the cabs of the majority of the front door operating only buses. That needs to extend to all buses in London to stop the virus coming through if the buses get packed. Unite have advised correctly that any driver in a position that is no longer safe should use Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act.

"We say that to maintain social distancing then 10% should be the number of passengers at any one time - the company's position is 50%"

Southampton bus driver

We don't have the option of front door closure like in London as our buses only have one door. Our employer has said that services are being ramped up from 18 May and a lot of our drivers have been contacted. It's not a full back-to-work situation, it's going to be up to 26% from the current 10%. A lot of workers are starting to go back.

Our trade union's position is to use to Section 44 of the 1996 Health and Safety Act if necessary. We're giving our drivers that information. If they find themselves in an unsafe environment then they should follow that and pull over.

We've made the calculation that to maintain social distancing on the buses then 10% should be the maximum number of passengers at any one time. The company's position is 50%. There's no chance of social distancing at that number. Their instruction to drivers is that if you reach 50% then you are to pull over, call control, and seek guidance. Our position is that it should get nowhere near 50% and we're encouraging our drivers to pull over a lot sooner.

Playing Russian roulette on the Tube

Simon Carter, East London Socialist Party

In the first week after Johnson's 'get back to work' speech, passenger numbers on the London Underground increased by a reported 10%. Matt Hancock, and other ministers, say "don't use it" - as if that's a realistic option for hundreds of thousands of workers.

I can personally vouch for this surge and how this is compromising social distancing. Entering a District Line tube train at West Ham station during peak evening travel is a nerve racking experience, packed as the carriages are by large numbers of workers, in particular construction workers.

Of course, these workers, many registered self-employed, have no alternative but to continue working on central London sites, even though these include non-essential luxury housing developments, etc.

Nonetheless, I, like many other passengers, understand that close contact with people for 15 mins (less than the average tube journey) is ample time to contract Covid-19. And that wearing a face covering is no guarantee of preventing the virus's transmission.

In effect, we are being corralled by the government's 'profit before safety' strategy to play Russian roulette with our health. That's why workers must collectively organise to resist this premature easing of the lockdown.

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Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
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In The Socialist 19 May 2020:

What we think

Confidence plummets in Tory strategy for Covid-19

Resist school reopening

Staff and parents fight 'back to school' plans

Make transport safe

Transport workers & passengers mustn't pay the price

Socialist Party news and analysis

Rich get handouts - workers get pay cuts

Contract tracer speaks out: Tories' plan is outsourced chaos

Crisis in council services: Labour must fight or stand aside

Furlough cut-off could force millions back to unsafe workplaces

Safe protests against Tory corona chaos continue

Johnson claims workplaces safe but HSE cancels inspections

Workplace news and analysis

Postal workers' action results in double victory for union

Trade unionists organise to fight for workplace safety in big NSSN meeting

Posties walk out in Peterborough after manager tests positive

Universal Basic Income: not a solution to insecurity and poverty under capitalism

Readers' opinion

The Jungle: capitalism's remorseless attack on workers' safety and conditions

Going viral: letters to the editors

Obituary: Rob Crabb

International socialist news and analysis

Trump, coronavirus, capitalism, and the presidential race


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