I have written this report for the Hackney TUC website, but it is currently under hack attack, so I'm posting it here. This is my report with the Hackney TUC's President's hat on. You'll have to wait for my personal opinions on some of the issues discussed until I get back from my holiday in the Isle of Wight in a week or so's time!
Over 50 people attended a public meeting on Wednesday evening in Hackney to protest against East London line privatisation. Both speakers and audience pledged their commitment to fighting for the East London Line to remain in public hands and for the extension to bring a public Tube to Hackney.
Opening the meeting, Chairperson Janine Booth (President Hackney TUC) pointed out that if you look at a Tube map, you will see a hole just north-east of the central area - Hackney! Local people have been campaigning for years for London Underground to come to Hackney, and were told that would happen through the East London Line extension. But now, the extension will bring us not a Tube line, but a private mainline service.
She also urged everyone present to write to their MPs urging support for Early Day Motion 2398 opposing the privatisation, submitted by socialist Labour MP John McDonnell, who many trade unionists are pleased to see is standing for Leader of the Labour Party.
There were four speakers - Bob Crow (RMT General Secretary), Louise Christian (legal representative of rail crash victims, Jerry Wines (Regional Organiser, TSSA) and Jason Humphreys (local RMT representative for East London Line station staff).
Bob told the meeting that David Cameron had phoned to ask him to speak at a Tory Party press conference at Clapham about their policy on the railway. He had refused - not only were there better things to do on a sunny afternoon, but why would he be seen to endorse the party that had privatised the whole of the mainline railway?!
He also explained how the Hatfield crash had happened: the track was in such a bad state of repair that the train had smashed it into 300 pieces, described by the enquiry as like "a steamroller going over a digestive biscuit".
Despite being in private ownership, the railway now receives 60% of its funding from the government, 40% from fares and other revenue. Money moves around the system like a carousel. Four times as much public money is going into the railways now than when it was publicly-owned.
The government, and the Mayor of London, have already had chances to bring privatised rail franchises back into public ownership, but have passed up the opportunity and re-privatised them instead. The Docklands Light Railway franchise was recently up for renewal, and TfL gave it to a private company, Serco Docklands.
Bob explained that pay and conditions for workers on the private railway were significantly worse that those on the publicly-owned London Underground. He told us that workers at London Bridge mainline station earned around £5,000 less than staff doing a similar job of the Underground station below them, despite working two hours longer per week.
Rail bosses are making a fortune out of privatisation, despite the poor standards of the service. Brain Souter, chief of Stagecoach, drew a salary last year of £984,000.
Bob concluded by saying that bosses, the Mayor and the government slammed the RMT for striking, saying that it was bad behaviour. "On the contrary, we think striking is good behaviour, because by striking we can win for both workers and passengers."
Louise Christian told us that she is still arguing for a public enquiry into the Potters Bar crash, in which the points were found to have 89 separate defects. Former maintenance contractor Jarvis is still denying responsibility, still sticking to its line that the crash was caused by vandalism. She explained that splitting up the railway has enabled the various companies each to refuse to accept responsibility.
Louise had recently been arguing with a Labour MP about the encroachment of the private sector into the health service. The MP asked her: but what if the private sector is more efficient? Louise had replied that it could not possibly be more efficient, because on top of all other expenses, it had to make profit - and where lots of different companies are involved, each of them had to make profit.
Louise ended with a plea about safety. A friend of hers had died in the 1973 Moorgate Tube crash. She was the last to die - six months later, having never left hospital. The Northern Line now has safety problems again, as private Infraco TubeLines puts profit before safety.
Jerry Wines asked rhetorically: What does privatisation deliver? The Tube's Infracos have had to pay fines of £4.3m in the last year because of their failings. But they have made £84m profit in the same period! Only 14 out of 35 stations scheduled for renewal have been completed, and all of them were late! "Privatisation delivers reward: payment for failure."
Jerry thanked us for organising the meeting and hoped that public opinion would count and stop the East London Line being privatised.
Jason Humphreys is a Station Supervisor at Shadwell station on the East London Line, and is currently released full-time as an RMT representative for staiton staff. He is also secretary of the RMT branch that represents East London Line staff of all grades.
He explained that London Underground Limited is planning to close the East London Line in late 2007 for the three years that it will take to build the extension, and to redeploy all East London Line staff off the line permanently. The union reps' demand is that if staff are displaced during the line's closure, they should have the right to return to the line when it reopens.
The list of preferred bidders for the Line includes companies that are messing up the franchises they currently run, such as Silverlink.
The Line General Manager has sent out a circular promising staff that a new mess room and new station supervisor accommodation will open in March 2007, just six months before the closure. In other words, LUL will be paying for spanking new accommodation for a private company!
Jason told the meeting that he had worked on the East London Line for over 20 years, and that the line is "like a family. Staff and passengers know each other - that's just the sort of culture you want on a railway line, and this privatisation is going to break it up."
Before inviting the audience to contribute, Janine asked everyone to write to Ken Livingstone about this issue, and also to lobby their local Hackney councillor. Hackney TUC had written to all Hackney councillors, but only four had replied - two Tories, one Green, and one Labour. She suspected that the Labour whips may have told councillors not to reply, which she felt was evasive and undemocratic (and rude!).
There was a lively discussion amongst those attending the meeting, raising several points, including:
- the appalling absence of corporate manslaughter legislation that would be effective against company bosses - in fact, as Louise Christian explained, a draft new law means that directors can be held personally responsible for their companies employing illegal immigrants, but not for killing staff or service users through neglect of safety!
- pledges of support for the fight against privatisation from several other unions, including Amicus, Unison, GMB and the newly-formed Universities and Colleges Union
- the importance of Hackney getting the Tube, and the importance of public transport in general
- commitment from individuals present to leaflet their street or estate with Hackney TUC's leaflet on the issue
- an appeal from an RMT activist that we should think about why the union had been unsuccessful in its bid to stop the government re-privatising South East Trains, and that one lesson to learn is that dishing out leaflets and winning public opinion is not enough to win
- the importance of putting pressure on Hackney councillors to take a stand on this issue.