London Underground workers in the RMT union are striking on 28-30 April and 5-8 May against job and service cuts.
The dispute is better and stronger than other recent campaigns because it is against the principle of cuts. Even if London Underground can find a way to axe 900-odd front-line jobs and increase managerial posts by redeployment and voluntary redundancy, Tube workers oppose the cuts.
They oppose them because the cuts mean that many workers will be pushed into lower-paid jobs, losing up to £12,000 a year pay. They oppose them because many workers will face disruptive changes in shift patterns and work locations.
And they oppose them because they believe jobs and services should be defended. Underground passenger journeys are growing at over 5% a year and will continue to grow. More passengers mean that more, not fewer, workers are needed.
London Underground bosses say that ticket offices are no longer needed, now that there are many automatic ticket machines. Tube workers point to the long queues at ticket offices.
LU bosses pretend that the cuts will improve services. Disabled people’s campaigns say that the cuts will make the Tube network less accessible to disabled and elderly people, who need more help from staff.
Bosses call the cuts “modernisation”. Tube workers say that “modernisation” should be about making the network more accessible to a wider range of people.
Tory MP and chief whip Greg Hands told the Daily Mail: “This is economic sabotage from militant trade unionists holding my constituents and Londoners in general to ransom. And all, it seems, in an effort to prove their leftist credentials in advance of a leadership election”.
Tube workers point out that elected members of the Greater London Authority had called for a public consultation on the cuts. RMT had said it would recommend suspending the strike if Tube bosses agreed to a full and proper public consultation.
RMT suspended strikes when the bosses promised negotiations in early February. But then the bosses spent twelve weeks showing union negotiators one presentation after another on how good their plans were, and if anything revealed that the cuts they are seeking are even worse than thought.
The bosses and the bankers are carrying out “economic sabotage” of working-class people’s lives every day. They demand “ransom” every time their greedy tricks cause economic chaos, like in 2008.
The Tory MP’s other complaint seems to be that the RMT union is too democratic. It is having an election for general secretary. Of course, all the candidates support the strike, though none of them decided it. That was done by democratic vote.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, on the other hand, promised when up for election not to cut London Underground ticket offices. Now in office, and safe from new electoral contest until 2016, he denounces the Tube workers who want to hold him to his promise.
Tory MPs denounced Labour leader Ed Miliband for not condemning the strike, and he kept a nervous silence. Labour’s shadow transport minister Mary Creagh weaseled: “It is wrong millions of Londoners are facing travel misery... Strikes are always a sign of failure and both sides must get around the table urgently and sort this out as quickly as possible”.
These strikes are the sign of failure by London Underground bosses to respect the interests of passengers and workers. They should be supported by the whole labour movement.
From the financial crash in 2008 to early 2013, 3.7 million people in Britain got made redundant. The total of job cuts will have been even bigger, since many cuts are made by leaving vacancies unfilled and then deleting the jobs.
About 2.3 million people are unemployed. Some of those made redundant have retired. A lot of them have found other jobs. Some volunteered to be made redundant, reckoning that the job would go anyway and volunteering would get them a payout.
But the overwhelmingly dominant pattern is that those made redundant end up in worse jobs, more insecure, lower-paid. Vast numbers are now nominally “self-employed”. Many are working part-time when they would prefer to work full-time, or at least more part-time hours. Many have joined the million on zero hours contracts.
This driving-down of workers into worse jobs is one of the major reasons why wages are still lagging behind price rises (unless you factor in bonuses, a big proportion of which are scooped by a high-paid few in high finance).
To resist job cuts is to resist the driving-down of services, job security, and wages being carried through by bosses so that they can “use the crisis” to shift the balance of forces between the classes and pave the way for high profits in an eventual economic recovery.
Since 2008, trade unions have generally been on the defensive, and winning “no compulsory redundancies” — that is, job cuts carried out by voluntary redundancies, deletions of unfilled posts, and early retirement — has seemed like the peak of aspiration.
Although the revival of economic activity is much weaker and more unequal than George Osborne says, it exists. It provides better conditions for unions to fight back. All workers will benefit if the Tube workers manage to put down a marker and defeat the job cuts.
On Tuesday 29 April, student activists from University College London, University of the Arts London and Goldsmiths College came to the London Road Bakerloo Line Depot at Elephant and Castle station to show their support for striking tube workers and to help RMT pickets distribute strike leaflets to the public.
Shelly Asquith, President of UAL Students’ Union and one of the organisers of the action, told Solidarity “I’m here because it’s important to defend jobs in London for everyone: it’s important that students show there support. London Underground are sitting on vast reserves and don’t need to make any cuts at all. Boris Johnson should keep to his election promise of not shutting ticket offices.”
Tom, studying at UAL, said “I am here to support the strike any way I can, and help out. Students have to stand together – this is linked to all the other cuts that are going on and we need to support each other.”
Steve Spurgin, Health and Safety rep for the RMT’s Bakerloo Line Branch said, “From a health and safety point of view, these cuts are terrible. When the CCTV fails, drivers need “assisted despatch”, where station staff come and wave us off. If there aren’t enough staff to do that, then stations will be closed. If there aren’t enough staff to be emergency brakemen, there will be delays.
“Station staff are vital for safety — they led the rescue efforts during the bombings, because emergency services didn’t have the expertise to do things like switch off the current on the tracks.
“The cuts are hitting track workers, too, meaning cuts in inspections of the rails, checking for broken rails or failures at the points. We know from Network Rail disasters what that can mean.
“The first strikes were an overwhelming success and it looks like this strike is, too. Looking at the dot matrix boards, very few services are running. The pickets are solid and at this depot we’re also getting a certain amount of support from our sister union ASLEF.”