When Our Strike Was Banned But We Walked Out Anyway

Submitted by Tubeworker on Thu, 04/16/2009 - 08:49

In 2001, at the height of our fight against the introduction of PPP, London Underground scuttled to its lawyers to get an RMT strike declared illegal. RMT members went ahead and walked out anyway.

It seems relevant in the current situation to tell the story. Here is how Workers' Liberty reported it in the pamphlet 'Tunnel Vision' ...

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By the end of 2000, rank-and-file pressure was mounting for renewed industrial action to stop PPP. RMT and ASLEF's leaders responded by launching a joint strike ballot. (Even at this time of unprecedented urgency and unity, TSSA sat it out.)

8 January 2001 - 'Save Our Tube' public rally, organised by RMT and ASLEF, addressed by Ken Livingstone, John Monks, Bob Crow and Mick Rix

RMT and ASLEF jointly demanded:

  • the establishment of a new, joint union/employer safety body to control all safety issues on the Underground;
  • a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies;
  • no staff to be transferred to a new employer without their agreement.

LUL refused to agree. Together with their cheerleaders at the Evening Standard, management claimed that the demands were not about safety, but about 'jobs for life'. They ignored the fact that railway safety relies heavily on the role of experienced, qualified, safety-conscious workers. One reason why British Rail privatisation had been such a safety disaster was that experienced workers were pushed out, to be replaced by casual, contract labour.

Management, government and newspapers repeated the mantra that "no-one can expect a job for life any more", as though everyone just knew this was true. But why not? If people are prepared to commit their working lives to the railway, why should they not have security? A truer version would have been "Capitalism will not guarantee 'jobs for life' because it wants the flexibility to pick up and drop workers as it suits". In other words, this was not about 'modern reality', but about employers' power and the drive for profit.

ASLEF and RMT's unity inspired members of both unions. The big majority of Underground workers want unity: most think we should all be in one union, and that whilst we are not, they should at least work together. So RMT and ASLEF activists attended each other's branch meetings, and came together in an ad hoc, rank-and-file 'Joint Union Strike Organising Committee'. The head offices organised joint strike rallies and sent out joint letters, signed by both Jimmy Knapp and Mick Rix.

Encouraged by this new and welcome unity, members of both unions delivered a massive 'Yes' vote for strike action.

January 2001 - Strike ballot result: RMT 89%; ASLEF 75%; overall 85% Yes

London Underground ran scared, and ran straight to the courts. Justice Gibbs duly obliged, and granted an injunction banning RMT from striking. The 'grounds' for the injunction were that the union had not provided the employer with sufficient information as to who would be taking part in the strike.

1 February 2001 - Justice Gibbs grants an injunction declaring RMT's strike vote invalid

Under a previous anti-union law, introduced by the Tories, trade unions had to supply employers with the names of workers who would strike. Labour had replaced this with a new regulation compelling unions to give not names, but detailed information. Justice Gibbs ruled that this meant a spreadsheet listing numbers of members in every grade and work location. Across London Underground, that meant over 400 locations and dozens of grades. Each week, around 150 LUL staff changed grade and/or location.

Both Tory and Labour governments had designed the law to force unions to help management undermine strikes. It was like having a law saying that if your local non-League football club drew Manchester United in the FA Cup, it had to hand over its team sheet and game plan to United a week before kick-off. Additionally, in an industry like the Tube, it was impossible in practice for the RMT to comply. But LUL was not asking the courts to uphold justice: it was asking them to take the employer's side and stop the strike.

LUL did not seek to injunct ASLEF at this point. Partly, the case would have been harder to prove, because ASLEF only represents train crew, and so its membership information is much simpler. Partly, management wanted to divide the unions. And partly, they probably wanted to keep some powder dry and keep ASLEF scared of future legal action.

RMT's head office leadership bowed down and complied. Jimmy Knapp rushed a personal letter to every RMT member's home, telling them to go to work on the strike day. But the rank and file, and our local reps on the Tube, were made of sterner stuff.

Within hours of the judge's ruling, Executive member John Leach appeared on a public platform - an anti-cuts rally in Hackney - telling LUL and the courts to 'stuff their injunction' and pledging that members would respect ASLEF picket lines and take unofficial action.

Activists organised to defy the judge, RMT members filling in ASLEF membership forms to get round the ban. We understood that if we all stood firm, management could not touch us. We would trust our solidarity, and organise effective picketing. With the union head offices allowing themselves to be gagged by the law, independently-produced bulletins were more important than ever. As events developed fast, Workers' Liberty published three issues of its Tube workers' bulletin during that week alone.

2 February 2001 - John Prescott announces he has asked Bob Kiley to 'modify' PPP

The Labour government was reeling from the ballot result, the prospect of a united and effective strike, and the obvious public support for the Tube workers' action. John Prescott announced a new 'deal' with Bob Kiley. He would postpone PPP until after the General Election; allow Kiley access to key information; and allow him to appoint a new layer of public-sector managers to oversee the private-sector involvement.

The government was trying to convince Tube workers that there was no longer any need to strike. Ken Livingstone used this development to withdraw his support from the strike (although the Evening Standard still denounced him for refusing to condemn it) and to renege on his earlier promise to join our picket lines. But we saw through the bogus, meaningless 'deal' that would still see PPP go ahead, and remained determined to strike.

5 February 2001 - ASLEF strikes officially; RMT unofficially

The ASLEF strike went ahead, and was joined by thousands of RMT members, unofficially, in defiance of management intimidation, the court's injunction, and union head office instructions.

It was fantastically effective. Only 8% of train services ran: in the morning peak, only 39 out of 476 trains were in service. The atmosphere on the picket lines was tremendous. ASLEF and RMT stood shoulder to shoulder. Members of the public shook our hands.

London Underground Ltd made a series of threats - as well as the injunction, there were specific threats of legal action against named RMT reps and unspecified allegations of 'aggressive picketing'. The company even banned RMT's Regional Organiser from its premises for an unsubstantiated accusation of violence. But because we all stood together, all of these threats came to nothing.

It was certainly the high point of the campaign. We tasted the strength that could have taken us on to victory against the hated Public-Private Partnership.

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To read what happened before and after this episode, click here

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