Interview with an RMT member: The New Year tube strikes

With two tube strikes in as many weeks, and more still to come, conducted this interview with a long standing London Underground worker and RMT member on the eve of the second strike.

Submitted by libcom on January 11, 2006

The interview is presented here in full.

Why are station staff striking?
Contrary to public perception, it has nothing to do with greedy drivers!

Most grades within LUL, including operating grades e.g. drivers have already achieved a 35 hour week. The station staff had been promised a 35 hour week for several years, but each year up until 2004 this important item had been overlooked. Eventually the RMT achieved a 35 hour week by a formula of maintaining the established 37.5 hours but “banking” these hours and achieving 10 extra days leave a year. This was rightly described as “ground breaking” as it represented quality time off work rather than a 30 minute a day reduction, which is negligible.

It has been the implementation of the new rosters that has caused the current dispute. There is an acceptance by the RMT that the demographics within stations are changing: the success of the Oyster card has meant that fewer passengers are queuing at station windows, especially in central London stations in the morning peak. For this reason it was agreed that 200 “multi-functional” staff could be displaced to other positions. There was, however, a tacit acceptance that if 4,500 station staff are getting 10 days extra leave (45,000 work days) rosters would need to be re-visited with the likelihood of more staff being required.

LUL resisted this, and even in the aftermath of the terrorist outrages in July, denied the need for more staff. Meanwhile the Government, with the support of LUL, is trying to do away with the fire regulations (section 12 stations) introduced in the wake of the Kings Cross fire. This will result in the wholesale reduction of station staff in safety critical roles, and consequently a greater risk to passengers. None of these proposed rosters has been safety-validated as required by LUL procedures.

What effect will the new rosters have on health and safety?
As a direct result of the imposition of new rosters, LUL are bringing in “remote monitoring of the gate line”. This means there will be no staff to assist passengers in station ticket halls. Experience has shown that a uniformed staff presence has a beneficial effect in reducing assaults on passengers as well as offering reassurance to vulnerable passengers. Polls have consistently shown that travelers, and women in particular, are more likely to use public transport when there are staff on stations.

From the point of view of staff health and safety, one of our major concerns is that many more stations may be staffed by a lone woman or man until late at night. There is already a serious problem of staff assaults at outlying stations which can only get worse with single person staffing. Also a large number of station assistants with child-care responsibilities are currently offered part-time positions. The new rosters are causing a great deal of anguish to people who may now have to resign because their needs are nor being catered for in the new rosters.

Many outlying stations are already short of staff; but the agreement reached during the OPO negotiations guaranteed all stations to have at least one member of staff or be closed. This is unfortunately being ignored and drivers have no way of knowing if a station is staffed or not. There was a case on the west end of the Central Line this year when a station was not only unstaffed but also unlocked overnight, so any drunken passenger stumbling in after the last train had gone could have been on the tracks until the first train in the morning - and no-one any the wiser.

I understand the stations attacked on 7/7 will be adversely affected by the new rosters as well?

LUL’s plans mean that those Edgware Road, King's Cross and Liverpool St. will lose 30%, 75% and 70% respectively of their front line staff. After the attacks on 7/7 Bob Crow predicted that the people the Evening Standard described as heroes would be villains again as soon as we asked for more money / shorter hours. How right he was.

Are there other issues that haven't been publicised which are causing tension between workers and management on the tube?
There’s a belief that LUL management are taking a far more aggressive approach to industrial relations than previously. There’s an attempt to undermine the trade unions by introducing American-style HR practices of individualisation as opposed to the collective bargaining we are used to. As well as the imposition of rosters which haven’t been safety validated LUL are seeking to bring in a draconian new attendance at work policy and, despite bullying being rife on the combine, to water down the current harassment policy. There is a pattern developing which shows that senior managers, with the support of Ken Livingstone, are attempting to break the RMT. Conditions and wages within LUL are amongst the best in London; this has been achieved by strong union organisation. If Livingstone can break the unions he can then attack our wages and conditions.

Are you involved with informal or formal organisations independent of the union leadership?
No. There is a publication called “Across the Tracks” which prints articles by rank and file workers but it is controlled by SWP / Respect, so although I’m happy to write for it occasionally I am not “involved” in any real sense.

Are you able to express the views you're putting forward here to people you work with?
Yes, of course.

What is the potential for individual workers to influence the action taken?
The RMT is still to a large extent a democratic union. Bob Crow is a very popular General Secretary but he is very much in the Stalinist mould: many of the head office staff recruited since his election have come directly from the Morning Star (which is provided free in the lobby!) and the CPGB. But decisions on industrial action and wage offers are usually made by ballots of workers. I say “usually” because there have been occasions when Crow has persuaded the National Council of Executives to ignore the wishes of the members, but this is quite rare. All RMT branches in London meet at least monthly, as does the regional council; these meetings are well attended and the debates are always lively. All individual workers are encouraged to attend and speak at branch and regional meetings and are also able to attend the regional EC meeting.

What is the attitude of the union leadership to the strike?
They were slow to mobilise for the NYE strike, and for a while I was concerned that they would only offer token support. However, my concerns have been shown to be completely unfounded. Unity House is now pouring resources into the dispute and national and regional officers have been mobilised to attend meetings and build support. I’m now confident we’re being offered the support necessary to win this dispute.

What is the potential for spreading strikes like this to non-RMT workers or RMT staff elsewhere in the tube service?

All drivers and signal workers are now being balloted for action short of strike action to allow them to refuse to work on strike days on the grounds of safety. Huge numbers of drivers are likely to refuse to drive on future strike days. Small numbers of TSSA members are already joining the RMT and refusing to work on strike days. Unfortunately Aslef, which represents 50% of drivers on LUL, have put out a disgraceful leaflet criticising the strike and RMT encouraging drivers to leave the RMT and not support the strike. As an ex-Aslef member it made me feel sick to my stomach to read such reactionary drivel.

It's good to see people taking steps like this in order to support the main action. Are there any discussions of action other than strike action by the ticket staff? 15 years ago in Melbourne, tram workers ran the service for free for a while instead of going on strike. There’s been an example of this in France as well. What are the obstacles to this kind of action?
We’re always looking for new ways to engage in effective industrial action. It may not seem like it, but the RMT doesn’t enjoy inconveniencing the public and if it was possible to pursue a dispute without doing so I for one would be very interested.

Unfortunately, there is established case law which deems it unlawful for members of staff to attend work and perform only part of their duties. So if station staff turned up for work and simply allowed passengers to travel for free they would, initially be unpaid for the whole day and subsequently face disciplinary action for breach of contract. I don’t regard this as effective. Also, it is the taking of collective action that strengthens the resolve of individuals in a dispute; standing on a picket line is a great way of building class confidence.

We also have to consider that the vast majority of passengers pay in advance for their tickets and the loss of revenue for one day would be minimal; LUL may even be quids in once you factor in not paying wages for the day. The economic pressure comes from elsewhere. The effectiveness of strike action on the tube is often gauged by the amount of money lost by the city. Many millions of pounds are wiped from the economy each time the tube shuts down for a day; it is the pressure applied on LUL by big business that often causes them to agree to settle. It’s a very important weapon in our arsenal.

Has there been much discussion of the New York City transit strike within your workplace or the RMT?
The national union and the regions have sent messages of support to the NYC strikers. One of Bob Crow’s biggest achievements has been to look outwards to the wider labour movement in order to learn lessons and to offer support.

What measures are management taking to run a scab service, will normal workers be crossing picket lines?
LUL management are behaving disgracefully in trying to break the strike. Many outlying stations were left open but unstaffed over NYE; many others in central London were opened with insufficient numbers of staff to maintain safety and security. London is still on a high security alert after the bombs in July, but you wouldn’t think it from LUL’s attitude. Head office staff are being given one day crash courses and then put to work in section 12 (underground) stations; it usually takes 12 weeks to train a station assistant. Managers and supervisors from TSSA are being encouraged to work 16 hour shifts in order to keep stations open. And, yes, unfortunately a number of so-called “normal” workers scabbed on NYE and may do so again. There will always be a small number of lumpen workers who lack class consciousness and are willing to betray their colleagues.

Why New Year's Eve for the last strike?
After talks lasting over 12 months it became clear that LUL were not negotiating with any level of honesty or integrity. Crow wrote to LUL along with all members affected on December 1st announcing the intention to ballot for strike action. With the legal constraints on strike action the date cannot have been insignificant, even to the people in charge of LUL.

New Year's Eve is the best date for strike action in order to put most pressure on Livingstone and O'Toole. The all-night running on New Year's Eve was flagged up as one of the most important benefits Ken Livingstone gives to Londoners. He's was mad as hell and did all he could to break the strike.

When planning a strike we look at a number of things - legal constraints, maximising impact, maximising levels of support from members, minimising opposition from the public, minimising managements ability to bring in scab labour etc. All these things are important but in the end New Years Eve seemed the best choice for effective action. Massive publicity, hopefully not all bad. Managers don't want to be standing on stations - fewer scabs.

Unfortunately I believe that whatever date we pick the public will be pissed off. New Year's Eve pisses off a number of party people, a number of workers (mostly) in the entertainment industry and of the course the entertainment industry itself. Any other working day would piss off a larger number of workers and industrialists and would result in major losses for the city. A great many activists and elected officials (not full time bureaucrats) with a lot of experience in industrial action decided NYE was the best option.

Another reason to pick it - managers on duty that night get a big cash bonus. Station assistants and supervisors rostered to work get the flat rate. Or they would if any of them came in!

How does it compare to the last tube strikes?
Station staff, historically, have been reluctant to enter disputes on their own as they perceive themselves not to have the industrial clout of drivers and signal operators, so there’s not much to compare it to. However, the general consensus is that the level of support from workers was phenomenally good and has built their confidence for future disputes. The vast majority of station assistants and supervisors stayed away from work and despite what LUL are saying, this had a big impact. The next one will be a lot more effective because now that drivers realise the extent of the safety breaches they’re likely to refuse to drive on grounds of health and safety.