Article looking at the impact of the 1989 public transport workers' strikes in London and elsewhere.
Forced to lie in the sun instead of sit in front of a VDU ...to stay in bed instead of going to work ...these have been some of the horrific privations inflicted on commuters by the last few months’ transport strikes. If this is misery, give us more of it!
Our rulers’ response to these strikes has been to talk of banning strikes in "essential services" and bringing in new laws against wildcat action. Their attempts to mobilise ‘public opinion’ against the strikes on the basis of the supposed misery they caused to commuters were largely unsuccessful however. Hundreds of spaces in the emergency car parks set up in Hyde Park and elsewhere in London remained empty, as people simply used the strikes as an excuse to stay off work, or at least arrive as late as possible. Indeed from April, when the first strikes began on the London Underground, until early August, many people were on what amounted to an unofficial 4 day week. With all the strikes now apparently settled, people everywhere can be heard moaning about the return to ‘normality’.
Real misery consists of having to spend time (for which we are not even paid) travelling to and from work every day in inhuman conditions. Overcrowded trains, broken down escalators (one in three is out of order on the London Underground), automatic ticket barriers - these are just some of the daily hazards we face. And as conditions deteriorate the threat of an ‘accident’ like the King’s Cross Underground fire (which killed 31 people in November 1987) constantly hangs over us. A secret report leaked at the end of August identifies 126 fire risks at Tottenham Court Road tube station alone. All this just to get to a place where most of us don’t want to go - the office or factory.
Apart from planning to increase fares by 20% to reduce numbers in the rush hour, London Transport’s main attempt to ‘improve’ matters appears to be a campaign of colourful posters extolling the wonders of the tube system and featuring a series of specially commissioned paintings. (Once again artists, those specialists of creativity, are exposed as the vanguard of marketing, selling us a way of life that denies the real creative powers of the rest of us).
"Sod the union"
The strikes involved at various times train drivers and station staff on British Rail and the London Underground, bus drivers and bus maintenance workers. For the most part, they have been limited to relatively ineffective one day action and have remained firmly under the control of the unions. There have been some interesting developments though, particularly on the London Underground, where the strike movement for a £64 a week pay rise was instigated after an unofficial mass meeting of 700 drivers in March.
Subsequent mass meetings involved members of the NUR and ASLEF, both of which unions opposed the strikes. ASLEEP stated "All members are instructed by this Executive Committee not to participate in unofficial action and to work normally". But as one train operator put it, "A lot of them are saying ‘Sod the Union’." Eventually the unions reestablished control after declaring the strikes official and seizing the initiative in other transport strikes. However many drivers were furious when the unions called off the strikes on the 9th August after accepting a pay rise of up to £16 a week. The next day many of them staged an unofficial strike, and one driver was quoted as saying: "If those union leaders who accepted the deal had turned up in person there would have been a riot". If the unions failed to immediately halt strikes, they gave London Regional Transport the confidence to threaten to sack drivers taking any future unofficial action. Faced with this prospect, mass meetings of drivers decided to suspend strikes.
Bus drivers at the Central Scottish Bus Group also defied "their" union during their 7 week strike (which finished at the end of May 1989). Against Tranpsort and General Workers Union orders, unofficial pickets successfully halted work on a number of occasions at depots belonging to CSBG’s parent company.
A major weakness of the strikes was their sectionalism. Despite the obvious similarities between their respective situations there was little attempt to unify the struggles of different groups of transport workers (let alone unify these with other recent strikes by dockers, steel erectors, and workers in the oil industry, local government, passport offices, the BBC, etc.), beyond sometimes striking on the same day. Some of the unofficial co-ordinators of the tube drivers’ strikes were even reluctant to take joint action with station staff on the underground.
The strikes at least demonstrated the potential that exists when different groups of workers strike simultaneously. On one fine day, June 21st 1989, tube, bus, and British Rail workers were all on strike in London, virtually bringing the city to a halt (an appeal by the organisers of a Billy Graham rally that night to cancel the strikes was ignored- perhaps this is why LRT chairman Wilfrid Newton accused ASLEF members who joined the action unofficially of being brought out by "ungodly" elements).
Unfortunately strikers didn’t attempt to stop the city completely by blocking roads, unlike in Spain where in June striking bus drivers barricaded the main road to Madrid airport during the rush hour! There was some disruption to roads in North East England on the 12th July though when striking council workers closed the Tyne Tunnel on the same day as a rail strike.
Stop the city
In some quarters (including the Independent’s letter column) it has been suggested that transport workers should stage a ‘social strike’, i.e. instead of striking they should turn up to work but refuse to collect any fares. Such an approach was adopted earlier this year in South Korea for instance, when workers on the Seoul underground opened the turnstiles and offered free travel to the system’s 2.5 million passengers.
We are opposed to this tactic in the current context, firstly because it would massively decrease the effectiveness of transport workers’ strikes. It is true that the profits of the transport companies would be hit, but the real power of workers in this sector comes from their ability to deprive capital as a whole of its most valuable resource - labour. London Regional Transport (LRT) claims to have lost £18m as a result of the 14 one day tube stoppages. But business in general has lost a lot more as a result of people not turning up to work (85% of London workers depend on public transport) and from having to pay for special transport, hotel bills, etc. for staff.
Furthermore, keeping the transport system running would put a stop to one of the most subversive aspects of such strikes- the way in which they allow people to reclaim some time from the wheels of the workaday machine. We need to remember that most people spend hours travelling every week because they have to not because they want to.
Of course, there are occasions when social strikes of one kind or another are a good idea. In Peking, railway workers allowed people to travel without tickets so that they could participate in the recent ill-fated demonstrations, But there is a world of difference between using transport for our own ends, and self-managing the circulation of commodities, including human beings.
Successful transport strikes benefit users not just by giving them more free time, but also because they increase the strength of transport workers, putting them in a better position to impose improvements in safety. The common interest between those of us travelling to work and those of us working in the business of travel is clear. Last year train drivers on British Rail’s Eastern Region went on strike in a dispute over unsafe braking systems, a threat to passengers as well as drivers. At about the same time there were several ‘commuter revolts’ on the London Underground, with passengers refusing to leave diverted trains. One result of this was the recruitment of 51 new drivers on the Northern Line.
Another site of struggle has been over plans to extend the transport system by building new road and rail links. In the process many homes and areas of wilderness face destruction. It is planned for instance to build a four lane motorway through Oxleas Wood, a large area of ancient woodland in South East London. One weakness of opposition to such development is that it generally accepts that there is a transport crisis, and proposes alternative ways of solving it. What nobody seems to be saying is that it is not a question of cars versus trains, or this route against that route, but of why so many people have to travel in the first place. It seems clear that the daily mass movement from A to B and back again is neither freely undertaken, nor does it satisfy any needs except those of capital.
In future strikes a positive development would be for transport workers, users and other interested proletarians to get together (outside of the control of the unions and parties) to wage a struggle on the basis of our need.
The Red Menace, Number Four, September/October 1989. Taken from the Practical History website.