Brief interview from the picket line of the Tube strike that lasted from June 9 - June 11 2009.
“If popularity won pay rises, then nurses would be millionaires and politicians would be begging on street corners!”
- From the RMT strike support website
From 7:00 pm on the evening of Tuesday June 9th until 9:00 pm on Thursday June 11th 2009, workers on the London Underground went on strike. The strike had been called by the rank-and-file strike committee. The main issue was job security, but the usual issues of pay, conditions, health and safety as well as management bullying also contributed to the workers’ decision to take action. Despite rumours of initial opposition from Bob Crow, the socialist leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the RMT executive eventually sanctioned the action.
Tube workers are known for their militancy and in an effort to understand the dynamics of the strike, a group of London radicals travelled to numerous pickets on the first evening of the strike. On our travels we met a worker who besides being a rank-and-file militant was also an RMT safety officer. This is what he had to say:
In terms of how the strike was organized, was there a lot of rank-and-file involvement?
It’s a rank-and-file union. It’s rank-and-file from the bottom-up. It’s the only democratic fighting union left in the country.
Have there been a lot of meetings [to determine the course of the strike]?
We got a strike committee set up. The strike committees are based from activists within every grade and every location across the board. [They’re] from all walks of life—all working-class people. They make the decisions. I mean ultimately the executive committee of the union makes the decisions, but the strike committee makes the recommendation of what the rank-and-file want.
Has there been any conflict between the strike committee and the union higher-ups?
There’s always conflict between the rank-and-file and the union hierarchies; it’s the nature of the beast. It always happens but, we tell them what to do; we elect them. If they don’t do what we want we just de-select them in the next election. It’s as simple as that.
You said this depot is like 50/50 [between RMT and ASLEF], what’s the communication like between the two unions? [Note: ASLEF is the British train drivers’ union and did not endorse the strike. Although drivers can join RMT, it is estimated that only 40-60% choose to.]
It gets difficult at a time like this. You can try to maintain a bit of comradeship, a bit of solidarity, but when you’ve got people crossing picket lines it’s difficult to be civil. We’re hoping a lot of them…well, not a lot…but if we could get a few of them not to cross our picket lines we’ll be happy. There’s obvious safety issues because there’s no fleet maintenance, there’s no track patrols, there’s no qualified signal personnel—they’re all on strike. So we’ve got leaflets we’re handing out to drivers when they do cross the picket line. And if they do cross—God forbid—then we’ll be asking them not to drive on the grounds of safety. Either way, we’ll be shutting down the service. It’ll be having the desired affect.
What’s the result of the strike?
It’s pretty good at the minute. It’s a 48-hour strike. Nobody wants to lose two days’ pay. It might be a bit more difficult to put on another 48-hour strike in a couple weeks’ time. People are gonna start to dither, that’s the way it works.
Where do you see this going after Thursday?
That’s a difficult question. I mean, where do we go after this? The strike committee’ll have to decide that. Whatever it will be, it’ll be a majority decision and a democratic decision.
Could you speak briefly again about the privatisation [of the rail line and how this has affected strike action]?
The compulsory redundancies that we’re talking about now are as a result of the previous privatisation of Metronet. The “infracore” as they call it—the fleet, the track, the signallers—they were all taken out of LUL, sold off private under the PPP. Gordon Brown as chancellor was the architect of the PPP, he wrote it all up. And now, when Metronet failed, they’ve had to spend millions and millions of pounds bringing it back in-house. But in the six years it was privatised there’s been duplication of work; so you’ve got two people doing the same job at various locations across the combine. So we need to lose these people. But we’re saying they should be lost for involuntary service, you know, natural wastage [i.e. quitting and retiring]. And they want to introduce compulsory redundancies and we’ve got a previous agreement saying they’ll be no compulsory redundancies. As usual, it’s the workers they want to take it out on.
More money would be good. We’ll tighten our belt even thought the politicians have their snout in the trough and LUL managers are giving themselves fortunes. [Note: at the time of the strike there was an ongoing ‘expenses scandal’ in which it was revealed parliamentary politicians had misappropriated millions in taxpayer funds to cover lavish expense accounts.] But the redundancies are the big one for us.
Thanks a lot.