Agency workers staffed the north of the Bakerloo Line and the south of the District Line since London Underground took over from Silverlink in 2007.
Wearing LU uniforms without earning LU wages, agency workers delivered outstanding customer service on flexible terms that suited LU’s needs. When short of staff, LU phoned the agency, which got an agency worker to keep a station running at the drop of a hat: the kind of flexible staffing solution that LU would like to replicate everywhere.
Agency workers dealt with persons under a train, but were told to pay for counselling out of their own pockets to deal with the trauma, whereas LU staff are provided with counselling. They delivered seven consecutive 100% mystery shopper scores over the Olympics, but received no Olympics bonus.
The agency workers grew tired of being treated like second class citizens. They were emboldened by the 2010 Agency Workers Regulation, which promise equal treatment between agency and permanent staff. Unfortunately, the RMT was slow to recruit and organise them, so the agency workers took out a ‘no win, no fee’ claim for equal pay with LU staff……a claim which is still running. The 33 are owed thousands in back pay, which Trainpeople has not coughed up.
A few people in the RMT, some supporters of Off the Rails, argued for the union to take up the cause of the agency workers and organised recruitment days to meet them. One local RMT rep played a critical role in signing the majority of the agency staff to the RMT. By late 2012, RMT was starting to talk about going for recognition with Trainpeople.
Then, in the ultimate expression of how dispensable “casualised” workers are to employers, LU announced it would terminate the contract with Trainpeople in January 2013. Workers got the news just in time for Christmas.
On 7 January, agency workers, RMT activists, accompanied by members of the London Assembly and Parliament held the campaign’s first demonstration outside Wembley Central station with the slogans, ‘sack the agency, not the workers’; ‘used, abused and refused’ and ‘justice for the 33!’ This has been followed by pickets outside the London Assembly and London Underground HQ, closing LU HQ twice! As we write, workers are holding daily pickets outside LU HQ to remind LU that the campaign has not gone away. After five months of poverty and demoralisation, that’s an impressive achievement, which we should all applaud.
Alongside the high points, the campaign has suffered setbacks. The early demonstrations pressured LU to meet the RMT; LU was reported to have promised LU jobs to all 33.
However, the ‘promise’ (if it was ever made) was never realised. LU made all 33 sit an assessment and role play, which only six people ‘passed’. The criteria LU used were dubious and mystifying to say the least.
LU evidently hoped to split the 33 workers apart and demoralise their fight. But LU underestimated the 33 if it thought it could make them go away.
Demonstrations alone will not win jobs for all 33. LU is digging its heals in. Although 33 workers could easily be incorporated into LU’s staffing – LU is holding over 100 positions vacant at the moment – LU has made a point of principle of continuing to disregard their cause. The time is approaching when London Underground workers will have to decide whether they are prepared to strike to secure victory for the 33. The RMT Executive has consulted branches about their members’ preparedness to strike - some branches have been slow to respond.
With casualisation spreading across LU, threatening further agency working, LU workers need to take action now to show that workers cannot be ‘used, abused and refused’ in the future. All LU staff must take a stand for permanent staffing. LU cannot be allowed to get away with treating workers as disposable trash. If LU gets away with it once, it will try it again and again until none of us can feel secure in our jobs.
This campaign will leave a lasting lesson about how the trade union movement should respond to the needs and demands of agency workers. The RMT’s initial reluctance about organising agency workers meant RMT was late in demanding LU to employ agency workers. RMT has not repeated the same mistake in its dispute over casualisation on Northern Rail, where it has coupled demands for an end to casualised working with demands for permanent jobs for agency staff.
Increasingly, employers take on workers casually through agencies, in the rail industry and the wider economy. Trade unions need to learn the lessons of the J33 campaign. Agency workers are capable some of the most courageous struggle the labour movement has seen in recent years.
Unions should not marginalise or ignore agency workers just because employers treat them as second class citizens. Fighting for the needs and demands of agency workers is an essential task of the union movement today.