Socialist Worker

London Underground

Issue No. 1751

London Underground

A big step forwards

But privatisation is still looming

TUBE WORKERS inflicted a bloody nose on their management last week as a hard fought six-month dispute came to an end. But New Labour's planned privatisation of the tube has survived this stage of the confrontation, and the fight against it must continue. Tube bosses had said they would make no further concessions over workers' demands to protect safety and jobs in the face of privatisation.

But the threat of strikes this week, after two successful earlier strikes, forced bosses into a humiliating retreat. Just as in the Post Office, an arrogant and aggressive management has been forced to back off in the face of union activists who are developing a new confidence.

Top managers told RMT union negotiators on Tuesday that they could "strike for a year" and it would not make any difference. By Thursday they had gone cap in hand to the union to give way on every key demand. The new offer was put to a 170-strong reps meeting on Friday.

It was accepted after a long debate. But about 30 percent of reps were for throwing it out and going ahead with the strikes planned during election week. It is easy to see why.

The union's campaign has won a better deal over jobs and safety than any other group of workers threatened with privatisation. But at the same time an opportunity to stop privatisation has been squandered. "We have won a good deal over the industrial issues," says Jake Wylie, an RMT rep for drivers at North Greenwich. "But stopping privatisation is what this campaign has been about, and everyone knows it-even though we could not legally have a dispute over that issue. We need a sober view of what we have achieved and where we go from here."

Management has conceded a binding agreement that there will be no compulsory redundancies even if New Labour's PPP scheme goes ahead. Any member of staff "who becomes surplus" will receive another job offer, but in the meantime will remain employed.

There will be "no reduction of staffing in any circumstances which might adversely affect safety". "There can still be problems," one RMT rep on the Victoria Line told Socialist Worker. "People could be redeployed to somewhere far from where they live."

"And the companies that want to take over the infrastructure of the tube under PPP have an appalling reputation for tearing up agreements and cutting safety," says Jake Wylie.

"But tube workers are confident after winning this. Whoever is managing the tube will have to deal with that." Management on the tube and private consortia that are bidding to take over parts of it know that too.

The bosses' Financial Times warned on Saturday of the deal "causing a potentially serious obstacle to any moves partially to privatise the underground". The consortia, which include companies such as Jarvis and Balfour Beatty, are divided.

Some firms are saying they can find a way round the agreement. Others say they are not sure if they can go ahead under these new conditions. Bob Kiley, Ken Livingstone's transport supremo, is negotiating with them, and the crunch will come after the election. "If we had struck we would have stood a real chance of seeing off privatisation," says a driver.

"We faced enormous pressure-Ken Livingstone abandoned support for the unions, the TUC threw its weight against striking. The rank and file was not confident enough to push RMT leaders to resist that pressure." But as a rep says, "I put out a leaflet saying 'Round one to us'. We are going to have to be a lot stronger for round two."

Pushed from below

THE MOTOR for the fight on the tube has been solidarity and pressure from the rank and file. A High Court judge banned the RMT from striking legally alongside ASLEF in February. But RMT members, encouraged by activists, refused to cross ASLEF picket lines.

The second strike in March saw ASLEF leaders call off their action after cutting a deal with management. But ASLEF activists organised to respect RMT picket lines, and again the tube shut. Management and the law were powerless. RMT leaders, under pressure from the TUC, then called off a third strike planned for May.

A 120-strong reps meeting threw out a deal, slammed the decision to suspend the strike, and called for action during the week of the general election. Tube workers have taken significant strides forward. However, important weaknesses remain and must be addressed.

Once management caved in on the issues which could be legally balloted over, it sharply posed the question of a political fight against privatisation. That required the determination to defy the anti-union laws head on. Ultimately RMT leaders were not prepared for that.

Now newer, younger workers need to be drawn in alongside experienced reps to build on the grassroots organisation that has already developed, so that it is strong enough to pressurise national leaders into calling militant action-and delivering it unofficially if they will not.

Fighting privatisation also means taking on New Labour politically. Five RMT branches on the tube have now refused to give money to the Labour Party. ASLEF and RMT meetings have voted to give money to the Socialist Alliance.

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Article information

Sat 9 Jun 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1751
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