Unions have slowed London Underground’s drive to casualise its workforce -but by avoiding mistakes, they could have stopped it.
For the first time, TSSA was willing to join RMT in holding a strike ballot, and the unions were united in their demands and strategies. And RMT took the right step in calling an all-grades strike ballot. Members of the two unions voted 81% and 83% respectively for strikes; the Executives called a 72-hour strike.
The pressure forced the employer to abandon “mobile supervision” of stations, to withdraw a new, weaker procedure for workers refusing to work on safety grounds, to provide better support and protection for signallers whose jobs are to be abolished under restructuring, and to back down on some other attacks too.
However, London Underground’s final position does leave several stations without supervisors on duty overnight (a break from its established practice) with private security guards patrolling the station instead; leaves its ticket office cuts certain to come back another day; does not give a satisfactory outcome to the Bakerloo detrainment dispute; and has several other flaws. The unions called off strike action not just because of the progress achieved, but because they feared that they could not deliver a solid strike. TSSA remains a union that has not taken strike action on the Tube since 1926, and RMT made mistakes too.
Chief amongst these was that, once again, members felt ill-informed. With a dispute based on a list of defensive demands, and with management pumping out propaganda all over the job, it was especially important that the unions gave members up-to-date information on issues and developments. However, this was almost entirely left to rank-and-file activists.
Secondly, although balloting all grades was the right decision, it was taken late in the campaign, so head-in-the-sand sectionalism promoted by ASLEF (“it doesn’t affect drivers”) had a headstart before RMT started chasing after it. And thirdly, the unions made organisational errors in the course of the campaign, for instance RMT having a balloting period so short that only a quarter of members voted.
Nonetheless, the action could and should have continued, perhaps in a different form. But TSSA reps voted to call off the action, and the next day, a majority of RMT reps took the same view.
Management have taken their first step along the casualisation road — but the unions’ (albeit flawed) fightback at least prevented that step from becoming a leap.