Tube strike stalls cuts plans

Submitted by Matthew on 12 February, 2014 - 10:48

Tube unions RMT and TSSA suspended a strike planned for 11-13 February, after London Underground bosses agreed some concessions in talks.

The Daily Mail reported the suspension of the action as London Underground “caving in to militants” and retreating from their plan to close all ticket offices. That the right-wing, anti-union press sees the deal as a win for the unions is certainly a positive sign!

London Underground management have committed to put the implementation of their cuts plan on hold, and to a station-by-station review of ticket office closures, with the explicit proviso that this may result in some of them remaining open.

A two-month discussion period, ending on 4 April, has been announced, and the terms of the deal specify that the proposals could be subject to change during that time.

That is significant: before the strike, Tube bosses and Boris Johnson were talking about the “Fit for the Future” cuts plans as a fait accompli that couldn’t possibly, under any circumstances, be changed — and, unfortunately but understandably, many London Underground workers believed that too. Johnson and LU bosses have been forced to back down from that intransigence by the rock-solid strike on 4-6 February, and the confidence of the workforce has received a big boost.

The Mayor repeatedly called the strike “pointless”; and the company’s mantra was “striking achieves nothing”. That has been dramatically disproved. 

Bosses have also committed to withdrawing the HR1 and Section 188 notices, which carried the threat of redundancies. Those concessions are real and positive. However, there are no definite, specific commitments to back down on the proposals — so what the unions do next is crucial. 

TSSA was more eager to settle than the RMT, and some activists in the RMT felt that members would not have been prepared to take further, sustained action once a deal representing any kind of progress had been offered. Keeping the strikes on with this deal on the table would certainly have been a risk.

However, suspending the action is risky too. The danger now is that over the two-month period, the pressure comes off management, the issue falls out of the headlines, management have time to recover the ground they lost through the 4-6 February strike. Unions may stop communicating with their members, and officers and activists may retreat into “business as usual” mode.

To make the most of the concessions forced from management, unions must take some immediate concrete steps. They should declare, now, a strike in early April of three (or more) days. Talks only bring progress when the threat of strikes looms, and announcing April strikes would signal to both members and management that if the talks do not yield meaningful progress, action will continue. It will give activists a focus and keep them in mobilisation mode. If the talks do yield further concessions, that action can be reviewed.

In the talks, the unions must declare some bottom lines, such as no reduction in staffing levels, no introduction of a two-tier workforce through re-grading, and keeping a trained supervisor on every station (rather than management’s plans for “mobile station supervision”).

The talks themselves must be open, not conducted behind closed doors by union officials. That must mean daily reports to members and members having access to all documentation.

Unions, and campaigns like Hands off London Transport, must lead a major effort to mobilise Londoners to defend their station staff and ticket offices, using the “station-by-station review” as an opportunity to get service users to demand their ticket offices stay open.

Every workplace must be visited and every member of staff talked to, systematically, and union branches to carry on meeting as often as they have been over the last six weeks. Branches should build hardship funds to sustain serious action in April, and the national unions should make their dispute funds available.

The RMT should also bring other TfL companies into dispute, particularly Tube Lines, where management have revealed their intention to pay for equal pensions and passes with job cuts.

The suspension of the action is not a sell out, but whether it has bought unions time to push for greater concessions from management depends very much on what unions do now.

The stakes remain high, and victory remains possible.

Solid, effective, and popular

London Underground workers’ 4-6 February strike to stop job losses and ticket office closures was solid, highly effective, and popular amongst working-class Londoners.

London Underground bosses’ promises to run a guaranteed service on certain lines were left in tatters, as the strike proved far stronger than management, and perhaps some in the RMT and TSSA unions, were expecting.

Management strikebreaking threatened safety throughout the strike. With the strike less than an hour old, a strikebreaking manager routed two trains to near collision at the Northumberland Park depot. Elsewhere, Stratford station had to be evacuated as the skeleton crew of a handful of scabbing station staff, partially-trained casual workers, and managers dragged out from behind their desks to work frontline jobs for the first time in years simply could not deal with the crowds.

Strikers reported bigger, livelier, and better-supported picket lines than have been seen for years, with workers from well beyond the ranks of the “usual suspects” supporting the strikes and turning up to picket.

Despite the anti-strike narrative of the right-wing media, public support for the strike was strong. Passengers understood that the strike was about the future of the Tube, not just workers’ economic conditions. The University of London Union, University College London Union, and the Students Union of the University of Arts London all organised solidarity actions, and disabled activists held a central London protest in support of the strike.

Tube unions RMT and TSSA followed up the strike with a “revenue action”, where workers refused to carry out “revenue duties” (selling and checking tickets) and, where safe, opened the gates to allow passengers to travel free for certain times during the day.

In response to the strike, the Tories have renewed their push for new anti-union laws. They say they will consider putting commitments to further clampdowns on unions’ rights in their manifesto for the 2015 general election. Options under consideration include imposing a “minimum service” agreement on London Underground, as well as changing balloting law to require strike ballots to return an absolute majority, rather than simply a majority of those voting, to be considered legal mandates for strikes. The right-wing clamour for new state repression of unions’ already straitjacketed rights to take action is testimony to the immense power that well-organised workers still have. It also received little support from the London public, a majority of whom told pollsters that they supported the right to strike as well as the strike itself.

The Tube strike has rocked the Tories. Already concessions have been won. Further action can force LU bosses and their Tory backers into an embarrassing climb-down, which will show workers right across Britain that, even in this climate of austerity, workers can assert ourselves and win.

Picket lines

King’s Cross

At King’s Cross on 5 February, Workers’ Liberty members visited the picket lines to show solidarity with striking RMT and TSSA members. We distributed Tubeworker, which was well-received by the workers, and gave away a couple of papers.

The workers were confident about the action so far, and were clear that the first 48 hours had to be solid for the strike to maintain momentum. They were receptive to Tubeworker‘s proposals for branches to establish strike funds, and interested to hear about how strike funds were operated by the 3 Cosas Campaign during the recent strikes at the University of London.

One worker told Solidarity: “I’ve only seen one member of staff go into King’s Cross, so it’s a good turnout and we’re happy with that. All our members have stood strong and united, and hopefully if our train drivers do the same we should get our message across today.”

Micheál MacEoin

Brixton and Elephant and Castle

I visited Brixton and Elephant and Castle picket lines. They were both pretty big and lively.

Brixton had six people from my union branch there, as well as TSSA and RMT strikers. Management had pulled out all the stops to get the station open earlier, but they had obviously been a bit taken aback by how strong the strike was. Strikers were angry that management eventually got the station open, and obviously at the ASLEF scabs.

Elephant and Castle was a jolly picket, as ever. They’d turned back a few people back, and were upbeat about the strength of the strike, particularly in signalling. I spoke to union activists about doing some community direct action around the next strikes.

Lucy Monette

A striker at north west London picket spoke to Solidarity:

“The first day of the strike was incredibly solid on the our line. Essentially it didn’t run at all, despite managements’ promise of a skeleton service. On the second day, a few more drivers and service control staff came in which meant management could run some level of service, but only seven stations were open.

“There’s been some flak from passers-by, but on the whole the public are supportive. People know that this is a strike for the future of the service.

“Reports from all over are that the picket lines for this strike have mobilised people well beyond the ‘usual suspects’. Those new people and their energy need to find expression in the direction of the dispute. The strike committee needs to be broadened out to be more democratic and representative, so it can actually get in the driving seat for this dispute and take control of where it’s heading.

“There is some nervousness about the possibility of sustained action. Some people are saying ‘well, there’s the next two days coming up... then what? How many more days’ pay will I need to lose before we win something?’ Obviously you want to fight that kind of thinking, but in this economic climate it’s not hard to understand why people think that way.

“There’s always been a bit of coolness in the RMT towards the idea of strike pay, but if we’re going to enable people, particularly part-time and lower-paid workers, to take the kind of sustained action that might be needed to win this fight, it’s something that’s going to be absolutely essential.”

Defend Mark Harding!

Mark Harding, secretary of the Hammersmith and City branch of the RMT, is being victimised for his union activities.

He was outrageously arrested on a picket line by Hammersmith police after a strikebreaking staff member got upset at being asked not to cross a picket line.

Mark’s bail conditions prevent him from “being involved in RMT or any other union associated with LUL/TfL or to be in attendance at any organised industrial action”. The arrest and the bail conditions are part of an ongoing attack on basic democratic rights.

Defend Mark Harding, drop the charges!

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