Drivers on the London tube’s Northern Line secured an important victory last week after forcing London Underground to withdraw the entire fleet of Northern Line trains.
Staff had expressed concerns after discovering that an emergency braking system was failing. This system automatically stops the train if it passes through a red signal. But on several occasions trains had continued to run after passing signals.
Reps from the RMT and Aslef unions tried to bring the issue to management’s attention. But nothing was done.
The tube is part-privatised under New Labour, with a company called Tubelines responsible for all maintenance work.
Tubelines further contracts out maintenance to Alstom, the firm which built the trains, and Alstom subcontracts the maintenance of the emergency braking system to yet another company.
Under the terms of its contract, Tubelines had 65 days to deal with the problem. London Underground was happy to leave it at that. But the drivers weren’t happy.
Previous experience has taught us that if frontline staff don’t look after our own safety, nobody else will.
And as the bomb attacks on 7 July and 21 July showed, it’s train drivers and station staff that are the first on the scene to deal with any disaster.
Underground staff have a strong history of taking action to protect the safety of themselves and the travelling public. In recent years, drivers on the Jubilee Line have refused to drive when their radios failed.
Earlier this year drivers at Edgware Road depot did the same — and were threatened with having their pay docked. This didn’t deter them, and the recent bombings have forced tube bosses to accede to union demands that trains should not run without working radios.
Last week London Under-ground finally agreed to double-crew Northern Line trains. This gave the driver a second person who could apply the emergency brakes if the train passed a red signal.
While still not as safe as drivers would have liked, they were willing to compromise after management promised to take the issue seriously.
But management withdrew double-crewing after just one day. When the emergency brakes again failed to apply on a train, drivers started refusing to work.
No longer prepared to accept London Underground’s assurances over safety, drivers refused even when bosses offered double-crewing again.
All workers have the right to refuse to work if they think it’s unsafe. But it’s often only in strongly unionised workplaces with good safety reps that workers feel confident enough to refuse.
Unfortunately the law makes this an individual decision — and unions are often over-cautious about advising people to refuse in case they fall foul of anti-union laws.
In one recent incident at another depot, management started making noises about “illegal industrial action” when workers joined together to refuse to work.
Thankfully unions on the tube are generally strong enough to defeat such bullying.
Drivers at Northern Line depots faced usual attempts at intimidation. While London Underground publicly boasted of how much it cared about safety, its managers were busy threatening to stop drivers’ pay and intimidating station staff into “volunteering” to help with the double-crewing.
Eventually, four drivers were sent home without pay — and the situation escalated. Faced with all their drivers refusing to work, London Underground did what unions had demanded.
The entire fleet was withdrawn and only reintroduced when a workable and safe solution to the problem was found.
Both RMT and Aslef told tube bosses that they would be balloting for strike action unless drivers were given guarantees that no action would be taken against them and that nobody would lose any pay.
The strength of the drivers’ action shocked London Underground, forcing senior management to issue a press release promising that drivers wouldn’t be victimised.
In the meantime, London Underground took control of maintenance under “emergency” powers, and the Northern Line fleet was modified over the following few days.
The speed with which London Underground was able to get the problem solved shows the lunacy of the privatisation contracts.
And it wasn’t just the unions and workers who complained — London Underground is itself now blaming “complex” contracts for preventing a quick solution to the problem.
There has been a series of near-disasters on the tube since privatisation, all directly linked to privatisation.
Companies have cut costs by piling more work onto fewer workers.
Safety standards have been sacrificed to ensure that the private companies involved with the tube make more than £2 million profit every week.
All of this was predicted and predictable – every time companies are privatised, costs are cut and safety goes out of the window. But the lesson here isn’t just about privatisation — it’s also about workers’ organisation.
If it wasn’t for the workers at Northern Line depots, the public wouldn’t even know about the potentially disastrous problem with the brakes, and London Underground would have had no reason to bother fixing it.
But those workers fought back because they stuck together in the face of a management that didn’t want to suspend the service in case they lost their bonuses, and in the face of companies think that safety is merely about ticking boxes and filling forms.