New year's eve tube strike on safety and jobs

London Underground (LU) gate line, platform and ticket office workers struck for 24 hours on New Year’s Eve against the imposition of new working patterns and the issuing of “at risk of displacement” letters.

Submitted by libcom on January 4, 2006

Daniel O’Rourke takes a detailed look at the action, the unions, the workers and the government.

As a result of the strike about 40 out of London’s 275 stations were closed, including Covent Garden in the heart of London’s West End and King’s Cross, one of the capital’s busiest stations.

LU says the new patterns are part of the Shorter Working Week (SWW) pay deal it agreed with the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) last November. The union described the two-year deal as “groundbreaking” and sold it as a two-and-a-half hour reduction in the working week to 35 hours, albeit “self financing”, i.e., to be paid for by the workers themselves.

At the time the RMT said there would be no job cuts. The union says, however, that it was not shown the new work patterns during last year’s negotiations and that the number of workers being displaced is many times the 200 it was told would be the case during the talks. RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said, “The rosters that LU intend to impose would reduce the number of station staff on duty at any one time, in many cases by more than half. We believe that that would leave stations with insufficient cover, especially in emergencies.”

The RMT said 4,000 workers had taken strike action and called on LU to accept a compromise offer it was proposing to prevent a second stoppage scheduled to begin on January 8. The union also warned that Tube drivers and signal workers could be balloted for action short of striking because LU had breached safety standards during the New Year’s Eve strike by using untrained management and office staff.

Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, declared the strike a “non-event” and claimed, “The majority of London Underground staff did not agree that it made sense to punish ordinary Londoners on New Year’s Eve.”

The New Year’s Eve strike had all the hallmarks of a token opposition action by the RMT bureaucracy to the conditions now being imposed on Tube workers as a result of the SWW pay deal. For their part, unions representing other Tube workers have left the station staff isolated, even though their members are facing the same situation. The white collar Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) reminded its members that it was “not in dispute with LU at this time” and to work normally, although it complained “staff were being subjected to an unagreed process … and many more staff than we expected have received ‘at risk of displacement’ letters.”

Train drivers in the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) union continued to work.

The strike call is an about-turn by the RMT and is due to the growing opposition by Tube workers as the implications of last year’s wage deal become apparent. Letters sent by local managers, headed “Shorter Working Week—Formal Notification: At Risk of Displacement,” said, “As you are aware, following extensive negotiations, the shorter working week for station employees is being introduced on Sunday February 5, 2006. As a direct result of this, I regret to inform you that you are at risk of being displaced from your current position.”

The threat of transferring staff from one end of the Underground system to the other, as has now happened, was played down by the unions, as well as the fact that for the first time the deal was negotiated on a group by group basis. Future negotiations based on a group of several stations will lead to competition between them, pitting workers against each other, and will lead the way for different wage levels within the network. This is the tried and tested method of divide and rule, which was so successful in facilitating the privatisation of the bus network in Britain and particularly in London—a move that was only possible thanks to the full participation of the unions.

The latest strike is the product of the Labour government’s programme to privatise the Underground system through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) scheme in 2000. In order to deflect public criticism over the disastrous national rail privatisation by the previous Conservative government, Labour said that the running of LU trains would remain within the public sector while the maintenance of the track and stations would be placed under the control of the private sector. The placing of profit before safety by the private companies in charge of the national railway’s infrastructure was the main factor in the subsequent rise in rail accidents.

The recent moves to “displace” workers are also linked to the introduction of the Oyster card electronic ticketing system that can be recharged via the Internet or passenger-operated ticket machines situated in every station. LU are forcing passengers to use the Oyster system by almost doubling the price of paper tickets whilst reducing some Oyster card fares. From January 1, 2006 in Zone 1 covering central London the “travel card” paper ticket will be scrapped and the single fare increased from £2 to £3. The minimum paper ticket price on the whole network will be £3.

Not only does the new pricing system overwhelmingly favour the Oyster card, but some stations are forced to close ticket offices and redeploy staff during peak periods and weekends—again forcing passengers to use the new system.

NEW! Interview with and RMT member about the strikes:

Analysis of the ongoing privatisation of the underground, and the effects it has had here:

Edited by libcom from