Where next?

Submitted by Janine on 1 July, 2004 - 12:00

As we publish this pamphlet, London Underground is one year into the Public-Private Partnership. Everything that PPP's opponents, especially the unions, said about it has proved true.

  • Major safety incidents, the biggest headlines coming on the one weekend in October 2003 when two trains derailed at Hammersmith and Camden.
  • The performance figures for the Infracos, which showed they had paid out loads more money in penalties than they had 'won' in bonuses.
  • The smaller-scale cock-ups, from brackets left sticking out of tunnel walls to snow left blocking the tracks.
  • The everyday inadequacies of the new system, as station staff battle to get the most basic repairs carried out.
  • And the attacks on the workforce - the most serious so far being the Metronet workers sacked when beer cans were found in a mess room that they (and more than 50 other people) used.

So PPP is well and truly exposed. And we should continue to spill the beans on what a disaster it really is. But we can not confine ourselves to reporting on how bad things are on the privatised Tube. Not only is that an inadequate strategy, it could also be counterproductive, demoralising us and our allies in the face of the big task that confronts us: to get the Tube brought back into public ownership.

We need a strategy. The main planks of this are: anticipating where the attacks will come from; fighting effectively on these issues; a political campaign as well as an industrial one.

SEE THE ATTACKS COMING

Some attacks have already started. To anticipate others, we need only look at the mainline railway and the buses. And London Underground management themselves have told the unions some of their ideas when making productivity demands in pay negotiations over the last few years.

Put all these together and we can probably expect:

  • any new lines or extensions to be built privately, then transferred to a private company - train and stations operations included;
  • the introduction of Oyster cards to lead to cuts in Ticket Office and gateline jobs;
  • reductions in the minimum staffing levels on stations;
  • driverless trains;
  • more 'flexibility' eg. your working hours changed at short notice, and/or staff deployed over a wider area;
  • Revenue Control Inspectors covering Station Supervisor jobs, and SS jobs therefore cut;
  • some night-turn Supervisor posts cut;
  • Station Assistants doing more and more Ticket Office and revenue duties;
  • Ticket Offices selling more products eg. tickets to tourist venues - increasing the work complexity for staff;
  • further clampdowns on non-attendance;
  • rostered station staff replaced by roving teams of staff who go from station to station responding to customer assistance points;
  • the use of agency staff for some station duties eg. queue-busting.

If we can see where the attacks might come, we are in a better position to see them off. But how?

FIGHTING OFF THE ATTACKS

We must defend every job, every condition, every safety standard, every member of staff who comes under attack.

The best form of defence is attack. Tube workers and our allies need to campaign for proactive demands. for example:

  • Before the employers try to get rid of drivers, we should campaign for the return of guards.
  • Before they propose cutting station staffing levels, we should campaign for more staff.
  • Before they propose cutting jobs, we should campaign for cutting hours.

The companies - whether LUL or the private firms - may try out new ideas in areas where the unions are weak. If and when this happens, union head offices may not pick up on it. So we need effective rank-and-file networks which can organise activists from the stronger areas to help the weaker - signing up workers to the union, backing up the local rep, alerting the rest of the workforce, organising action, putting pressure on the union leadership to act.

Grades committees and branches could play this role - so long as they decide to be outgoing, active, and welcoming to rank-and-file union members.

The unions have not and still do not do enough to raise the political awareness of the membership. When crises looms we put out leaflets and hold meetings. When there is relative peace we sit back and let management plan their next initiative.

We need to keep the membership on a war footing. Look at the writing on the wall and warn our membership what to expect.

Crucially, the unions need strategic thinking. We need to discuss and plan what we are doing. Too often during the fight against PPP, those unions which did fight did so through token shows of opposition, rather than with a thought-out strategy.

Since PPP, this problem is still with us. After the Hammersmith and Camden derailments, TSSA and ASLEF complained, but did very little. RMT held a ballot for action, but without a clear idea as to what it was doing and why. The union leadership made its decisions disregarding the expressed views of reps, and eventually, the action did not go ahead. At least it looked like a fight, but it went off half-cocked.

The best way for the unions to have a strategy that can win is for the rank-and-file members to be discussing the issues and making the decisions. Too often, a branch or a region will come to a view about what action is best, only to be told that the national executive makes decisions like this and we have to like it or lump it.

The rank-and-file should be in the driving seat right from the off, making decisions about how, where and when to take action. What we usually get now - if we are lucky - is very little say until a take-it-or-leave-it referendum on a deal cooked up behind closed doors.

A POLITICAL AND INDUSTRIAL FIGHT

While we fight off the attacks, we can not lose sight of our main goal: to get the Tube back into public ownership.

The more we can link our fight with other unions in other public services, the better. We should be meeting regularly with workers from the rest of the transport industry, the health service, education, local councils, the fire service, the post and others, comparing notes and experiences, and co-ordinating our action.

We can fight industrially. With a decent strategy - like that outlined above - we can 'put out fires', fight off attacks, keep the union together, and maybe even win some improvements.

But what we really need is to force the government to bring the Tube (and the whole railway system) back into public ownership. And to achieve that, we need to fight politically as well as industrially.

That means organising campaigning - taking our case out to the rest of the labour movement and to the public; holding demonstrations and other protest actions. RMT has been doing some of this, with its Parliamentary and public campaign against the 're-privatisation' of South-East Trains, and a few protests demanding that the government reverse PPP. But this needs to happen on a much bigger scale. And there should never be another fatal rail crash without the unions responding with a demonstration.

We should promote our ideas for a workers' and passengers' plan for transport.

And the unions must flex their muscles in the arena of political decision-making.

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