Socialist Worker

Our safety on the line in tube battle

After this week’s strike the campaign to defend staffing levels on the London Underground is more crucial than ever — and it’s an issue for all of us

Issue No. 1983

On the picket line at Elephant & Castle station on Monday (Pic: Guy Smallman)

On the picket line at Elephant & Castle station on Monday (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Every passenger and worker in London has an interest in seeing Underground workers win our ongoing battle against attacks on safety and jobs.

And no one should be in any doubt that those issues are at the heart of this dispute and the strike by station staff that took place on Sunday into Monday this week.

Alongside that is a major attempt to weaken trade union organisation in the capital.

Underground management and London mayor Ken Livingstone are trying to use a deal to bring in a 35-hour week for station staff as an excuse to cut hundreds of jobs.

Every tube passenger who faced understaffed stations on Monday’s strike day needs to know that such conditions will be the norm if these job cuts go through — plus outrageous fare increases to keep the profits of the private contractors up.

Unless you have a pre-paid card, a single fare in central London is £3.

Cuts will mean there are not enough staff to advise passengers, intervene in difficult situations and provide reassurance.

That’s just the impact on a normal journey. Since Tony Blair has made Britain a terrorism target the consequences of getting rid of staff could be tragic on a huge scale.

Liverpool Street station, which was directly affected by the 7 July bombs, is to lose 15 station staff. How can that possibly improve safety?

But remember, this is coming from Ken Livingstone.

Managers

He said last July that he would rather have 200 armed police on the tube than 200 train guards. That was on the day armed police killed Jean Charles de Menezes.

It was recognition of the threat to safety that led to tube workers giving such magnificent support for this week’s strike.

Over 95 percent of station staff in the RMT union struck. This is from a section that has often been seen, and often unfairly, as weak.

There’s no doubt people felt striking on a day when it would hit big business was a step forward from the previous strike at New Year. So there were picket lines this time and up to 60 stations were closed.

In order to keep others open management drove a coach and horses through safety regulations — regulations which it took the King’s Cross tragedy two decades ago to bring in and which are under threat from the New Labour government.

It also meant senior managers having to do some work for a change — shifts of 15 hours or longer to try to break the strike. The head of human resources on the Underground had to staff the station at Moorgate.

During the strikebreaking operation the more junior managers were put at the sharp end by more senior managers. If our immediate superiors feel caught in the middle, there’s a way out — come down on our side.

The strong feeling among station staff and the atmosphere of solidarity meant that significant numbers of drivers felt able to assert their right not to drive if they thought it was unsafe.

About 100 trains were taken out on the Piccadilly and Northern lines. Elsewhere management also sent home drivers on full pay for refusing to drive in unsafe conditions.

That meant this station strike was more effective than the last one. London’s anti-union Evening Standard spoke of transport “chaos”. They’d have loved to run an article saying the strike flopped.

Now union activists are discussing where we go from here. We’ve shown station staff are prepared to strike.

Mobilise

Members of the TSSA union on the tube are also opposed to the job losses, though their leadership have not yet balloted them.

But it’s also clear we have to go beyond the action we’ve taken up to now. That means seriously discussing in union branches how to escalate our action.

Management can just about cope with a 24-hour station strike by the RMT. But what about 48 hours or 72 hours? It’s a big step for station staff to take, but the stakes are very high.

There’s another crucial form of escalation we need to move to. That is to involve all workers — drivers and signalling staff — in the dispute.

This is at the heart of the RMT’s vision of trade unionism. It represents all grades and does not accept divisions based on what section you work in.

The RMT is now balloting all staff for action short of a strike which would strengthen the resolve of drivers not to work when it’s not safe, such as when station staff are on strike.

An active campaign to win a big yes vote in that ballot can create the conditions for that kind of action on a very wide scale even before the result comes out.

It’s not just a health and safety argument. It’s also about solidarity and basic trade unionism.

Every worker on London Underground needs to know that if management get away with hundreds of station job losses, they will come back for drivers and signallers as well.

That’s what happened, for example, on the New York subway.

There’s another thing every activist on the tube should be doing — taking our case to other trade unionists and activists. They need to know the safety implications, be invited to our picket lines and raise solidarity.

Above all, they need to know that there is open talk from Livingstone’s office and from Underground bosses of breaking the RMT on the tube. Every employer would welcome that.

We need to build on Monday’s action in every conceivable way. That’s the unequivocal message tube workers need to hear from the RMT at every level.


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News
Sat 14 Jan 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1983
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