THE ATTEMPT by London Underground management, with the connivance of the government, to inflict a serious defeat on the rail unions has spectacularly backfired. London mayor Ken Livingstone came to an agreement with leaders of the RMT and Aslef unions on Wednesday of last week. This has pulled the rug out from under the tube bosses. Livingstone met the unions' call for independent mediation over this year's pay claim and related issues.
London Underground Ltd (LUL) management had repeatedly refused to go to mediation, even though both unions said they would call off the two recent one-day strikes if an independent figure was allowed to look at their claim. Instead management imposed a 3 percent pay offer, removed facility time from union reps, refused to talk to the unions over pay, and launched a disgusting propaganda campaign against tube workers.
It was a provocation, as was LUL's revised 'offer' made to the unions on Tuesday of last week. This offer made no concessions over pay and refused to introduce a fair scheme on travel concessions for tube workers. It also put off negotiations over equalising pension arrangements until next April, when the pension fund could be in deficit.
The Treasury and New Labour ministers stood behind this hard line. They ensured that as part of the PPP privatisation scheme for the tube London Underground bosses came up with one of the lowest pay offers to any group of rail workers.
Insiders at both the RMT and Aslef unions say they had been told that the government, spearheaded by transport secretary Alistair Darling and minister John Spellar, were out to break the RMT on the tube. Executive members of the rail unions were told last week that New Labour was considering using emergency powers to ban public sector strikes during an attack on Iraq.
The aim was to use these powers first against the tube workers and then against the firefighters, who enjoy huge public support. Just six days before last week's deal Tony Blair slammed tube workers for daring to strike.
He said their action was 'unjustified' and would 'not alter the way London Underground is run'. A defeat for the tube workers would have made it easier for the government to take on the firefighters and other groups of public sector workers. New Labour ministers are also desperate to break the influence of what they call the 'awkward squad' of recently elected left wing union leaders.
Top of their list is Bob Crow of the RMT. TUC officials sympathetic to New Labour manouevred to keep him off the TUC general council. The right wing press particularly targeted Bob Crow during the tube strikes. 'The deal offered by Ken Livingstone has wrong-footed the government and the right wing media,' RMT assistant general secretary Pat Sikorski told Socialist Worker.
'It means when Livingstone takes over the tube in four to six months time he will send everything to mediation, which is what we were asking for. He has promised to honour whatever the mediator comes up with and will backdate any settlement to April of this year. He says the deal will cover everyone, including those track workers who may be transferred to private consortia if the PPP scheme goes ahead. On that basis we have suspended our action. We can now pay attention to the up coming issues on the tube and railway, which of course have not gone away.'
London Underground bosses are humiliated. The London Evening Standard had led the press rat pack in attacking the tube workers.
Last Thursday it ran the headline 'Surrender', complaining bitterly about the unions' victory. On the same day the Tory transport spokesperson said that 'every union militant in the country' will take heart from what has happened on the tube. Tube union activists are well aware that they face battles ahead - not least over PPP and talk from Livingstone's transport commissioner Bob Kiley of a 'no-strike agreement'.
But determined strike action has seen off what the government hoped would be a damaging attack on tube unions. That has left tube workers in a better position to face future battles, and has also encouraged other groups of workers.
United with nurses
THE LONDON Evening Standard claimed to be speaking up for low paid nurses when it laid into tube workers. Brian Monro, acting secretary of the London Region of the RMT, told a meeting of education workers last weekend, 'The same Evening Standard that attacked us responded to the nurses' claim for a 15 percent pay rise last week.
'Its editorial said they did not deserve a rise of four or five times inflation, and argued for divisive regional pay instead. That's the level of the hypocrisy. Tube workers back the nurses. And we need to be uniting across the public sector.'
For more on moves to unite public sector workers in London click here.
Views from the rank and file
'THE MEDIA tried to whip up a witch-hunting atmosphere against us and especially Bob Crow. It's delightful to see Ken Livingstone pull the rug from under that. The deal does leave open a number of questions. But I have every faith in our union and members to be able to sort them out. There are still a series of disputes, on the signalling side for example. Unlike management, Ken Livingstone supports public services. But we are not going to be a patsy for him. The main thing is that we go forward. We have made the government pay a heavy political price for pushing ahead with PPP. And people feel the union was right to stick to its guns.'
Oliver New, chair London Region RMT
'WE GOT what we went out the door for. It's as simple as that. Management are really sour. They know they are not going to be around when Livingstone takes over the tube. Of course we know everything is not going to be sweetness and light when Ken Livingstone and Bob Kiley take over. But in terms of confidence it's management who have had a knockback in this dispute, not the workforce. That can feed into the determination not to risk our lives and passengers if the firefighters are on strike. A lot of people are saying it's quite simple - you turn up to work, but you don't take trains out if there is no professional fire service.'
Finn Brennan, Aslef trains council rep
'THIS PROVES that strike action pays. The government wanted to take us and the firefighters on as it prepares for war on Iraq. If it broke the rail and fire unions, all the others would retreat with their tails between their legs. Everyone sees this is one in the eye for management. There are also legitimate worries about what Livingstone will deliver. There is little trust for Bob Kiley. What we have to do now is build up rank and file organisation to put pressure on our union leaders to put pressure on Livingstone. Part of that is going to people who were intimidated by management and showing them that our action has made a difference. The fight against PPP is certainly not over. We are in a position after this to return to that.'
RMT activist, Edgware Road
'THE MAIN message is that we stood up to management and media intimidation and won. Of course there are still big problems. But the lesson is that we had two successful strikes. They and management's humiliation mean we are in a position to address our weaknesses from a position of strength. It's now important to build up the organisation of reps and activists. Newer people want to get involved. Two people spontaneously joined the RMT at Mile End station the day after the strike because they saw the union made a difference.'
Mac McKenna, station staff
'THERE WOULDN'T have been any movement without two days strike action. I think Livingstone was pushed to intervene. There are issues ahead. There is PPP. That was linked to the pay question anyway, as the companies made their bids on the basis that pay rises would be kept down. But we are in a not bad position to deal with them.'
Woman RMT activist, West London
Support FBU strikes
TUBE WORKERS now face two pressing and related issues. Infrastructure workers are due to be transferred to private consortia under the government's PPP scheme. Tube workers struck twice last year and once this year over the safety implications of privatisation.
A further threat to safety comes from London Underground's insistence on running trains on days when the firefighters are set to be on strike. The King's Cross fire in 1987 led to safety regulations which mean underground rail stations need a certain level of fire cover. That cannot be met by the army scabbing on strikes.
RMT and Aslef union leaders have pledged to support the FBU and, along with activists on the tube, are looking to shut the network on FBU strike days rather than put three million commuters at risk.