February’s tube strike was the opening skirmish in a struggle to defend London Underground transport services in the face of a full frontal attack on the rail unions...
The weekend after London Underground staff staged their 48-hour strike, three people in a pub in an affluent part of Sussex were overheard chatting over a few drinks. They seemed unlikely supporters of the rail unions. But while these commuters to London had been severely inconvenienced by the strike, they were unconvinced by the arguments put forward by London Mayor Boris Johnson to justify the proposals that led to the strike.
6 February: RMT and TSSA pickets united at Leytonstone tube station.
That feeling was echoed throughout London and its commuter belt: the public has seen through Johnson, preferring the commonsense union view that closing ticket offices and cutting staff would damage service to passengers.
This strike was the opening skirmish in a struggle to defend London Underground transport services in the face of a full frontal attack on the rail unions. It ended in a resounding victory for the workers. Strike action paralysed London for two days. London Underground was forced to agree to withdraw its formal notice of redundancies and conduct a review of station staffing jointly with the unions. A second strike was therefore called off.
The strike was a show of strength for both RMT and TSSA. While the two unions have decided against merger, there has been a spirit of unity among the many pickets around the system.
Voting with their feet
Transport for London (TfL, London Underground’s parent body and the transport authority for London), and London Underground tried to play down the effect the strike would have on tube services. But they massively overestimated the number of staff who would turn up to work, and hence the lines and stations they could open and how many trains could run. Despite a less-than-decisive turnout in the strike ballots nearly all union members voted with their feet and walked out.
The strike also affected National Rail services and passengers. One group got off a (non-Underground) train at a station managed by London Underground to find the station was closed, and the gates locked! There were also dangerous levels of overcrowding at many busy stations, London Underground taking a very cavalier approach to public (and staff) safety.
London Underground and TfL tried every tactic to undermine the strike. They tried to recruit so-called “ambassadors” (a new euphemism for scabs) from among TfL staff to replace striking station staff. Not surprisingly, these workers were not at all enthusiastic about breaking a strike by colleagues – many of whom are in the same unions, and facing the same Johnson-inspired staff cuts.
TfL put on huge numbers of extra buses, many from outside London, with reports of vehicles over 60 years old being pressed into service on some routes! The bus enthusiasts may have loved it, but massive traffic jams ensured that they were no substitute for lost train services.
Unions are now urging passenger watchdog London Travel Watch to put pressure on ministers to bring tube ticket offices into line with those on National Rail stations across the country, where strict rules apply about ticket office opening. Stations and lines are often shared between the tube and National Rail with some rail stations managed by the Underground and ticket offices staffed by Underground staff, so a common approach would be logical.
So what lies behind the dispute? London has adopted the Oyster smartcard for passengers to use the tube, as well as buses and National Rail services. Seven million Oyster cards are in regular use, with millions more bought by visitors to London. An Oyster fare for any given journey is much cheaper than conventional paper tickets, a deliberate move to pressurise passengers to use Oyster.
Johnson would have us believe that the success of Oyster means ticket offices are no longer needed. Prime Minister Cameron was clearly taken in by Johnson’s hype, telling Parliament "the fact is that only 3% of transactions now involve ticket offices, so it makes sense to have fewer people in those offices." The trouble is, Johnson was not just seeking fewer staff in ticket offices – he wanted no ticket offices at all.
Even the statistics quoted by Cameron were not correct. TfL’s own research shows that around 3 per cent of journeys begin with a purchase at a ticket office. Clearly many transactions pay for more than one journey, including sales of weekly, monthly or even annual season tickets, and Oyster cards which almost invariably pay for more than one trip.
TfL has now been forced to admit that one in five ticket purchases took place at a ticket office. And, as many tube staff are quick to mention, much of the time of ticket office staff is spent sorting out errors and problems with the millions of Oyster cards. It is well known that TfL is overcharging Oyster users on a massive scale running into millions of pounds, much of which is down to problems with the Oyster computer systems.
And the dispute is significant for those working in National Rail ticket offices. The extension of Oyster to all National Rail stations in London (and some beyond, soon including Gatwick Airport) has meant a big reduction in conventional ticket sales. In a clear attempt to undermine their viability, many of these ticket offices are not equipped to sell or top up Oyster cards, or to deal with any problems.
This isn’t the first dispute over tube ticket offices – it’s the third time they’ve had to fight. “They’ve been planning this since 2005,” said one picket at Leytonstone, east London. “I think if Ken Livingstone had been mayor [the full closure programme] would have been done,” said another. To which a third added, “More efficiently.”
But Mayor Johnson has a much wider agenda. He has set out to wage war on tube workers and their well organised unions, RMT and TSSA. Not only does he want to cut staff numbers, but he also wants to slash wages for those left with a job, and there are growing fears that Johnson intends to attack the staffs’ pension scheme and their free travel facilities. He wants driverless trains, though there are huge technical difficulties to overcome before that can happen. In order to achieve his plans, he needs to defeat the unions.
Fortunately, the regulations put in place following the loss of life in the Kings Cross fire disaster in 1987 will protect staff numbers at stations that are actually below ground (many London Underground stations are not actually underground), but if Johnson has his way many surface stations will become what the unions refer to as a “mugger’s paradise”. With the government attacking health and safety standards and laws, how long will Underground workers be able to rely on these laws?
It is no coincidence that Johnson announced the intention to start running 24 hours a day at weekends, along with the plan to remove nearly 1,000 jobs and axe 260 ticket offices. The unions believe that more staff cuts would follow. Yet only recently, London Underground was talking of employing around 300 extra staff!
The employer’s publicity has continued to talk about “modernising” the tube but failed to explain how this “modern” 24-hour tube service could be run with so many fewer staff!
There is no doubt that the war against cuts and closures in London Underground has yet to be won, and many expect the workers to be picketing again in the near future. But Mayor Johnson and London Underground are on the back foot. They now know that they have a formidable adversary in the unions, and will have to overcome massive public support for maintaining public services. ■