Tube strike stays solid

Submitted by Matthew on 4 November, 2010 - 3:14 Author: Daniel Randall

Tube workers hit bosses with a third day of strike action on November 3, with the stoppage once again severely disrupting services on the London Underground.

The company had been assiduously training up managers in between strike days to cover frontline duties; once again, in being prepared to send people with just a day's worth of familiarisation into frontline jobs, LU demonstrates its utter contempt for passenger safety.

But moreover, the whole episode has raised another question: if senior managers are so expendable that they can leave their jobs for days at a time to take familiarisation training or cover frontline duties, what exactly are they doing the rest of the time that makes them worth all the money they get paid? “Sack the bosses” sentiment is definitely growing on the picket lines.

There is also a clear mood amongst many for escalating the action, tempered by an appreciation that for many workers, any escalation that is not coupled with a serious move towards paying strike pay would be a serious financial stretch. With strike pay, however many pickets were confident of turning out the membership for more prolonged strike action of 48 hours or longer — the kind of action, in short, that is now necessary to turn up the heat on the bosses.

Where next for the Tube dispute?

By a Tubeworker

London Underground has announced a further 800 job cuts (on top of the original 800 station staff job losses that sparked the current dispute). We need to step up our campaign accordingly.

There have been many positive aspects to the dispute so far. We have fought despite there being no compulsory redundancies threatened: we are defending staffing levels, not just individual workers' jobs. TSSA is striking for the first time, and rank-and-file ASLEF members have supported the action despite their leadership’s opposition. The creative use of action short of strikes is a big step forward, and public support has been encouraging despite press hostility.

But as the dispute continues, management are implementing the cuts. They have drafted new rosters, carried out a bogus “consultation” and offered voluntary severance to some workers, some of whom have accepted. The unions were slow getting ballots organised and action called: now the real danger is that come February, the final implementation date for the cuts, we will still be holding token one-day monthly strikes to save jobs that have gone. Digging in for a long-term war of attrition based on monthly one-day strikes will wear down workers’ confidence.

We need to escalate. Strikes should be stepped up to 48 hours, perhaps staggered over more days. We should also devolve power to the grassroots membership, to plan winning strategies that members support.

We also need:

Accessible hardship funds

While some people say “I can't afford to strike” as an excuse for scabbing, others genuinely struggle financially. Unions should organise hardship funds that members can access. Unions officially have these funds, but they are usually loth to pay out to strikers. So rank-and-file members and branches should set up our own hardship funds and raise money for them. The point of industrial action is not to make a glorious sacrifice — it is to win.

Rank-and-file meetings

Rank-and-file Tube workers can discuss how the dispute is going, share concerns and offer suggestions for next steps. We talk about these things at work, so we should also do so in union forums where our views can be heard. AWL members have fought for years to commit the unions to running disputes through elected strike committees: workers will keep fighting if we feel meaningful ownership over our struggle. Workplace activists should set up local forums involving members of all unions. Even if these meetings are only consultative, simply giving rank-and-file members a chance to openly discuss the dispute would be positive. But ultimately we should fight for strike committees made up elected workplace representatives to be given direct control of the dispute. RMT’s Regional Council has a strike committee which has played a useful role, but union activists need to make it more central to the dispute.

More support for the action short of a strike

Creatively applying tactics other than strikes is a positive step, but because these tactics are new, members need more support and explanation to help us apply them. We need letters (not just emails) to all members and visits from union reps to give us confidence to properly enforce tactics such as the boycott of the £5 minimum Oyster top-up policy. LU imposed this policy in January, and RMT's Regional Council asked the union to ballot for a boycott. But the union did not hold the ballot until August nor put the boycott on until September. Although many staff are boycotting it, the policy has now bedded in to some degree. More direct union support would help, and is also vital to prevent divisions emerging around the action short. The overtime ban for engineering grades has now been switched to a work-to-rule; this makes sense because of the nature of their work, but has caused some resentment among station staff for whom the overtime ban is still in place.

A real campaign to win public support

This battle is for the heart-and-soul of London’s public transport, a showdown between management's vision of a soulless, de-staffed, unsafe Underground designed to squeeze the maximum profit from passengers and our vision of a top-quality service run in the public interest by well-paid, valued workers. On picket lines, we have explained to angry commuters that the unreliable, disrupted service they get on strike days is a foretaste of what the tube will be like all the time if management get their way.

We can not expect the right-wing press to give cover our strike positively. But our unions should do more to win public support. Pickets have handed out “why we are striking” leaflets to the public, but these came from RMT’s Regional Council rather than head office. The Regional Council has also taken the lead in winning active support from disability rights and pensioner activists, groups who will be particularly affected by staffing cuts. Union head offices have produced some material e.g. protest postcards, but should do more to put our case more clearly.

A political campaign

The Greater London Assembly (GLA) has now voted to condemn the cuts, passing a resolution at the third attempt after Tories twice scuppered earlier votes by walking out. The unions should use the GLA vote to mount a significant political campaign, arguing that the position of the elected GLA prevails over the position of unelected LU managers.

We also need a wider political campaign. These cuts are part of a historic assault on working-class rights and living standards. Our unions should coordinate with others and our activists should participate in local trades councils and anti-cuts campaigns. Cross-union coordination means not just bombastic statements of support for other unions' campaigns, it means working together. The FBU/RMT/PCS/NUT demo on Octboer 23 was positive. We need more actions like that, properly advertised and built, and serious discussions between unions to coordinate industrial action. We should face down right-wing scaremongering about ‘secondary picketing’ by asserting our right to support fellow workers in struggle.

Support Janine Booth!

AWL member Janine Booth is standing for election to the RMT's Council of Executives for the position of London Transport Region member.

Janine has been nominated by 10 out of 16 RMT branches in the region, with five nominating her opponent and one not submitting a nomination.

Janine wants to give grassroots RMT members more say over how their union is run. She is also campaigning for an industrial strategy that aims to win, including the introduction of strike pay so RMT members can carry out prolonged disputes with management if necessary without fear of the financial consequences. And she is campaigning for socialism — at a time when London Underground bosses are attempting to make workers pay for a crisis they created, Janine is fighting for a vision of society where the interests of the working-class majority come first.

AWL members in London will be supporting the campaign by helping distribute Janine's election material at stations and other LU workplaces as well as canvassing staff. The Tubeworker bulletin will play a central role. Janine Booth is the only candidate in the election fighting for real change and grassroots control within the union.

• To get involved with the campaign, email janine.booth@btopenworld.com

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