Socialist Worker

Don't throw away this chance to win

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1735

Last week's strike on London Underground struck a powerful blow to New Labour's privatisation scheme. But there is now a danger that a version of John Prescott's plan to hand the tube to private contractors could still go ahead after union leaders called off strikes planned for this week and next.

London mayor Ken Livingstone and his transport commissioner Bob Kiley have dropped opposition to the PPP privatisation scheme. All that stands in their way is the determination of tube workers and the support they have won from other trade unionists. Tube workers have shown they have the power to defy legal threats and to humble an arrogant management.

Instead of immediately building on that strength their union leaders have chosen to lock themselves into negotiations, which offer London Underground and the government a breathing space.

There were mixed feelings amongst tube workers last week-elation at the success of the one-day strike, and frustration that there will be no further action until at least the beginning of next month. 'People were overjoyed at the success of the strike, especially those who had not taken action before,' one tube driver in north London told Socialist Worker. 'But then further action was called off. We could see the management was in retreat, and a driver summed up many people's feelings when he said, 'I won't be happy until I see the white flag flying over Downing Street'.'

The tube strike was one of the most effective pieces of industrial action for many years and a significant breach of the anti-union laws. The network ground to a halt. London Underground management admitted 92 percent of services did not run. The true figure is even higher.

Management and the media were predicting right up to the strike that it would cause only 'some disruption' because the High Court had banned the RMT union from striking, despite a nine to one vote for action in a ballot. The RMT is the biggest union on the tube, organising station staff and a minority of drivers. Most drivers are in the ASLEF union, which was not legally barred from striking.

It was unofficial action by RMT members refusing to cross picket lines that made last week's strike so effective. RMT train crews simply did not turn up for work. Station staff in many areas also refused to cross ASLEF picket lines. RMT members, who in many cases had joined ASLEF for the day, stood on picket lines. The media deliberately played down the unofficial action.

But London Underground management knew the scale of the defiance. On the day of the strike it drew up a list of 40 RMT activists who it claimed had encouraged the action. Unnamed management spokespeople told the press that London Underground was considering legal action against the RMT. They told the London Evening Standard that strikers had broken the 'legal limit' on the number of pickets. Within two days all London Underground's bluster about taking the RMT and its activists to court evaporated.

It scurried into talks with the unions, dropping threats of legal action. Then leaders of the ASLEF union called off the two strikes planned for the rest of this month, which everyone knew would get the same unofficial backing by RMT members. In return for surrendering the initiative they got just one concession from London Underground.

Injunctions are not worth paper they're printed on

The rail unions could not legally ballot for action directly against privatisation. Union leaders chose not to confront the law head on, but to ballot over demands that London Underground guarantees safety and no compulsory redundancies before the sell off goes ahead.

Every tube worker knows those guarantees are incompatible with privatisation and that their action is, in effect, about keeping the tube in public hands. The public knows that too. That is why there is such overwhelming backing for the tube workers.

London Underground management has now conceded one of the unions' four demands-a joint management/union committee on safety. But as Mick Rix of ASLEF and Bob Crow of the RMT have pointed out, the steps already taken towards privatisation have compromised safety. Privatisation is the central issue. Last week's strike showed legal injunctions are not worth the paper they are written on if unions strike confidently.

The RMT is to reballot over the next two weeks. Activists in both unions need to argue hard against further delay. They need to pressure the leaders of ASLEF to reinstate the strikes. The run-up to the expected general election is the perfect time for the tube unions to call serious strike action and to run a popular political campaign against privatisation.

'Only game in town' that no one wants

John Prescott's Public-Private Partnership (PPP) scheme is already in disarray. Now is the time to finish it off, not to throw him a lifeline. Prescott announced the scheme in March 1998 as New Labour was flushed with success in its first year in office. He said, 'PPP is the only game in town.'

Then last year Ken Livingstone trounced New Labour's candidate for London mayor, Frank Dobson. Livingstone won public support because people believed he would stop privatisation.

But he dropped outright opposition to PPP at the beginning of this month. His transport commissioner, Bob Kiley, struck a deal with Prescott. Under the deal Kiley will get to review the scheme over the next few weeks. That is a climbdown by Prescott, but also by Livingstone. The principle of the privatisation scheme remains.

The network has already been divided into six different units in preparation for private companies to take over, just as the mainline railway was.

The giant construction companies are furious that public opposition and last week's strike have forced a delay in the scheme. They include Balfour Beatty, builder of the Heathrow Tunnel extension (which collapsed), and Jarvis, which has just been fined £80,000 for breaching safety regulations on the track it maintains in South Yorkshire. Some contractors are considering suing the government over the delay in signing the contracts.

But they all know that some version of the scheme is set to go ahead. One contractor told Construction News, 'Maybe Prescott is playing a blinder. 'Kick it into the long grass for now, get the election out of the way so it's not an issue and then turn round to Kiley and say, I'm not listening anymore'.' Whatever compromises and delays New Labour allows, privatisation, under PPP or PFI schemes, remains at the centre of its plans, not just for the tube but for hospitals, schools, prisons and the rest of the public sector.

That is why the fight on the tube is so important. A clear victory there would boost all those, such as health workers in Dudley, who are fighting the corporate takeover of public services.

Backed by poll

The tube strike won enormous public support. The anti-union London Evening Standard commissioned a poll, hoping it would show that passengers felt held to ransom by the unions. Instead, it revealed two out of three people backed the strike. These findings were not prominently shown in the main editions of the paper.

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Article information

Sat 17 Feb 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1735
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