Mayday 1999 - On the tube

Submitted by Steven. on October 13, 2005

An article and critical accoung about May Day - International Workers Day 1999 in London, which took the form of a demonstration on the Underground and concentrated on public transport issues.

Several hundred people gather at the Tower of London. In smaller groups they descend underground, on to the Tube. At Liverpool Street station they meet up, on the clockwise bound circle line platform, waiting for a particular train. On board decorations go up, lengths of brightly coloured material decorate the carriages, balloons are released, slogans displayed, games set out, music played, food given away and signs erected declaring the line under joint worker/passenger control. The Tube is transformed from a dull empty alienated space. The Party Line has begun.

A leaflet is distributed, mimicking in style that of London Underground (LU), ripping off their distinctive font and logos. In content however, it is something else, setting out the case against privatisation, showing how strikes are good for workers and commuters alike, and linking this to the demand for a free transport system and to the need for a new world.

The tube moves off and, at Tower Hill, more people join in. The cops stop the train here, announcing it will go no further. As a stand off ensues sadly many, but not all, of the other passengers leave the train. After 15 minutes, the train moves off, not stopping again until Embankment. From there we are put on another tube, non-stop to Clapham Common, the publicised end of the Party Line. There the party heads out into the open, to join the dope smokers on the common. Two hours after it began, the action is over.

May day our day
The action originated with the call to do something more creative, more fun, more revolutionary and more proletarian on May Day, instead of simply tail ending the official parade. Tube workers had already taken strike action against privatisation and in defence of their terms and conditions. The strikes were planned for the beginning of the year, but LU obtained an injunction using the anti-strike laws. A new ballot was held, leading to a strike from 6pm on Valentines Day. The popularity of this was demonstrated by the lack of traffic on the Monday, as commuters took the chance for a day of leisure. Popular support could also be seen at Hammersmith, for example, where home made placards declared "we love the Tube Strikers" against the background of a red heart.

Last year sparks working on the Jubilee Line extension won a series of reforms from the hard line private management, when they took wildcat action outside of the unions control, in an example to us all. The privatisation of the Tube will have a major impact on Londoners, leading to worse service, fare increases and corners cut with health and safety. It was decided to hold a tube party as a way of showing solidarity with the tube workers with the potential to unite all proletarian Londoners.
The Good, the Bad and the…

In the main the action was a success. A large number of people attended. The decorations were brilliant, the food good (although not enough people brought any), the atmosphere was light hearted and the leaflet was great. So far there has only been limited feedback from tube workers, but there have been requests for further information and a number of positive comments. The leaflet has also become sought after. After such an action, however, we have the opportunity to reflect upon it with the benefit of hindsight, and to draw what lessons we can for the future.

The tactics of the cops
Large numbers of cops were anticipated. At the start they were clueless. Motorcycles and vans were standing by, useless on the tube! Rumour has it they thought the Dome was the target! However, as the action progressed, so did the cops response.

One of the main aims of the action was to transform the tube for its users. In doing so we hoped to break down barriers and talk to other passengers, encouraging them to join in. The cops were largely successful in preventing this, not by curtailing the party early (that possibility had been foreseen),but by running our tube non-stop. Such tactics had not been predicted and this was a weakness, which will have to be overcome in any future tube parties. Publicising the destination of the party was a mistake, as it allowed the cops to direct us there. Without this it would have been harder for them.

Our self-isolation
However, it was not only the cops who succeeded in isolating us. To a large extent we did so ourselves. From the outset there were a number of protesters who declined to follow the facilitators, seemingly because they did not look the part (it seems to have escaped them that the facilitators may have had good reason to be anonymous how will we fare on June 18?). The plan was to spread people in small groups along the circle line, as far back as Kings Cross, thus making it less easy to close stations. Whilst most of the facilitators did a fantastic job in getting people on the tube under the noses of the cops, even the earliest groups only went as far as Liverpool Street. Everyone gathered there and it was luck (or stupidity on their part) that the cops allowed the train to stop. It seems there is great comfort in numbers.

Once on the tube only a small minority of people made any effort to talk to their fellow passengers. To most of them I suspect that we represented a heterogeneous and inward looking group. Even the leaflet, which was aimed at everyone, was not used effectively. For example, at Clapham Common there was a northbound tube when we arrived. Only a couple of people passed leaflets through the window to be distributed to the obviously interested passengers.

Consumer party culture
Whilst there were inspiring home made signs and decorations only a few people, outside of the organising groups, contributed anything to the party. Most turned up expecting to be entertained. This was especially ironic, given that the leaflet proclaimed:

"Packed together at rush hour, miserable faces, nobody talking with anyone else, hiding behind personal stereos, or looking at the adverts for products that never satisfy the tube is as alienated an environment as the traffic jam."

Perhaps this is a wider problem of the party protest scene. Certainly the lack of politics was evident. The first leaflet calling for the action had linked it to the judicial murder of the Haymarket martyrs, who died for their part in a reformist struggle linked to revolutionary ends. The second leaflet, however, concentrated on the case of privatisation, making only a single reference to May Day. The problem with this is that, as our history is forgotten, everything has to be rediscovered and experienced as though for the first time, neglecting valuable lessons from the past.

Moving on
As I said at the beginning the action itself was largely successful. If this article seems over critical, it stems from the desire to make any action better next time (and can in large parts be read as self-criticism). On the 4 May Railtrack announced their willingness to run the whole Tube network as a privatised entity. In doing so they came to the rescue of the Government, who have been unable to find anyone willing to take on the deep lines. The struggle against privatisation will therefore continue. RMT are launching a campaign and discussing further strike action. In supporting this and doing further actions, we need to continue to link our opposition to privatisation with the need of our class for communism.

The most positive aspect of the Party Line was the fact that we broke with attending the boring lefty May Day parade. Next year International Workers Day falls on the Bank Holiday Monday. We need to think of bigger and better ways to celebrate it. After all we have a tradition to uphold.