Earlier this year, staff on London Overground won an impressive victory, and beat the lie that you can not fight and win during a recession.
300 station staff, conductors and booking clerks had been angry for years, feeling that their work conditions were appalling. Staff accommodation was inadequate. Pay was low: as little as £14,000 a year plus benefits. Industrial relations had completely broken down. Private company Silverlink held the contract for years and did nothing for staff.
In late 2007, ‘London Overground’ took over the contract and came under the Transport for London umbrella. This raised expectations that pay would be brought into line with London Underground station staff, who earn a minimum of £24,000 a year.
But improvements did not come automatically: workers had to fight for them. RMT reps recruited 94% of the staff into the union. From the start of 2009, they held a series of well-attended mass meetings. At one of these, staff decided they wanted to ballot for strike action. The issues on the ballot were: pay, inadequate accommodation and driver-only operation.
The ballot result was 171 votes to 18: a mighty 10-to-1 ‘yes’ on a 70+% turnout. This forced management to negotiate seriously.
Staff ended up with a package of pay rises between 12% and 35%: the average was 22%. They stopped the extension of driver-only operation and got a fixed timescale for improvements to accommodation. RMT members voted 78-30 to accept the package, the significant minority wanting to fight on, still resentful at their lower earnings compared with London Underground staff.
This would be a remarkable achievement at any time, but in a recession, it is even more outstanding.
Staff showed they were not willing to accept bare minimum pay and facilities; they would not ‘make sacrifices’ to help their company out during a recession. It was important to them to win more, and they went for it. Their willingness to fight – seen in the big turnout and ‘yes’ vote – was the key to their success.
Lo and behold, when they did fight, the company found some money. Across our industry and the wider economy, bosses say they are strapped for cash. But examples like this show they can afford it. We just need the confidence to take them on.