London Underground workers resist jobs massacre

Submitted by Matthew on 14 May, 2010 - 3:26

In February, London Underground announced 800 front-line stations staff job cuts: 450 ticket sellers, around 200 station assistants, and a handful of managers. Facing a slick campaign from London Underground, RMT activists are campaigning hard, and are now waiting for a fighting response from the top of the union.

Latest figures show that every station will lose a significant number of staff, when we have too few already! Even current numbers leave some stations regularly unstaffed. There are never enough to deal with incidents. When a short delay leads to overcrowding on platforms, staff need to control the flow of people into the station. If someone falls on an escalator, or activates a passenger alarm on a train, or finds a suspicious package, staff are needed to keep the service running and safe. Workers genuinely fear that they will not be able to run stations safely if these proposals go through.

Customer service will go out of the window. Boris Johnson, elected on the pledge to save ticket offices, will close them in all but name, restricting opening hours to as little as an hour a day.

RMT activists have kicked off the “S.O.S. — Staff Our Stations” campaign. We have gone to the press and are doing regular public leafleting, tapping into sympathy on customer service and safety issues.

But we are facing a new breed of London Underground management, who are fighting hard and strategically. A document that recently fell out of management into union hands revealed their plan to prepare for and provoke a strike.

They will not give in easily. They rode out a very effective two day strike last year. They are also playing different grades against each other by leaving station supervisors and drivers out of these attacks, convincing some that these cuts “won’t affect them”. Drivers’ union ASLEF is feeding this division by recruiting drivers who don’t want to strike for station staff.

We need a concerted, united fight. Sustained action, not one or two day strikes, uniting all grades.

RMT’s leadership are not treating this battle with any urgency. They are in dispute, alongside the smaller, more conservative stations union, TSSA, but not yet preparing a ballot.

The court injunction that prevented the Network Rail strike has been a perfect pretext for sluggishness, illustrating why union leaders secretly love the anti-union laws they publicly decry. Workers’ Liberty activists have been at the forefront of building this fight. We will continue public campaigning, building unity across the grades and putting pressure on our union leadership to take the fight up seriously, as it deserves.

Marxists and "new technology"

One of London Underground’s pretexts for cutting jobs and slashing ticket office opening times is that new technology, in the form of the ‘Oyster’ smartcard ticketing system, has significantly reduced purchases at ticket office windows. There are several reasons why this ‘reason’ is disingenuous:

* The number of transactions at the ticket office window has not reduced simply because of Oyster, but because of a deliberate policy by London Underground to drive business away. LU has, for example, imposed a £5 minimum Oyster top-up only at the ticket office window; has advertised alternative outlets such as newsagents; and enticed people to buy online by offering free iTunes!

• LU claims that transactions at the ticket office window have fallen by 28%, but measures this from early 2006, when it cut ticket office opening hours!

• It plans to cut ticket office opening hours by 35%.

• It has changed the measure by which it decides whether a ticket office is open in any particular hour from 15 minutes of ticket-selling activity to 30 minutes.

• The Oyster system has many problems and difficulties, and many passengers, for example occasional, foreign, disabled or elderly ones, may find it hard to use alternative outlets such as machines and prefer a personal service.

But beyond these immediate and specific issues, there are deeper issues about charging for public transport and about new technology.

If socialists ran public transport, we would make it free. So there would be no ticket offices or ticket-selling jobs. But we would not cut jobs overall; we would more staff in other areas of the station; we would build new lines and extensions which would need staff; and we would cut working hours.

But London Underground is not scrapping or even cutting fares. It continues to charge the highest fares of any European capital city, but is just making it harder to pay them at the station! The new Oyster system could have been used to reduce queues and improve the service; instead, it is being used as a pretext to cut it.

Transport companies often target new technology into ticketing, even while they leave safety and operational systems in the 19th century.

Improved technology should be able to make our life at work easier, perhaps reducing our working hours or lightening our workload. But the employers usually see it as an excuse to get rid of us, or attack us, instead.

So if new technology comes with attacks on our working conditions, should we oppose it?

Rail workers can hardly be against new technology as such, or we’d be demanding our own abolition in order to save the jobs of horse-drawn carriage drivers! In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx saw the “new technology” of railways as highly progressive. “The real fruit of [class] battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever — expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication...

“That union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians [wage-workers], thanks to railways, achieve in a few years”.

And we’d rather work on new trains, in newly-rebuilt stations, with modern kit, than under old conditions. New technologies create new possibilities and make old things faster, more reliable, and often easier.

But in a capitalist, profit-driven society, new technologies are introduced in order to improve profits. What is introduced, and how, is decided by profitability — by how new technologies can help capital in its eternal quest to squeeze more work from us, and to increase management control.

Marx analysed this for the new technology of the 19th century — mostly steam-powered factory production. On the face of it, the new machinery eased labour, but it had actually helped the bosses to increase work rates.

The increased productivity of new technologies meant that the capitalist class could produce commodities with less labour-time. They needed less of the workers’ time to produce the goods to pay the workers’ wages. They could have cut working hours.

But instead, they kept people on the same hours and kept the money from the extra products for themselves. Less of your working day would be spent producing value to pay your wages, and more producing value to make profit for your boss. Capitalist new technology has an inbuilt drive to increase inequality. It also has an inbuilt drive to produce surges of unemployment. If new technology makes production faster, the bosses sack “surplus” workers.

Further, wrote Marx, “machinery... is the most powerful weapon for repressing strikes, those periodical revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital”. It does that by making labour more easily replaceable.

But while doing all this, new technology builds up both the technical and the human basis for socialism. It means that when the working class takes control of society, we will have the resources available to meet human need and to abolish poverty. As Marx said, new technology “provides, along with the elements for the formation of a new society, the forces for exploding the old one”.

So? New technology — yes; but we have to fight for control over the terms and conditions under which it is introduced; for shorter hours and easier work conditions rather than job cuts and increased managerial control.

Frontline reports

CactusMan is an RMT rep and activist.

“I’ve been active in the campaign through leafleting and petitioning stations. I’m also going to be addressing a Unite meeting; we have to spread the message to other unions.

“Unite has members on London Underground and they’ll be in dispute soon too. Generally though this is going to be a slow-burning, long-running campaign. A strike still seems a little way off.

“We’ve been producing station-specific leaflets, so we can tell passengers exactly what cuts are threatened at the stations they use every day. We’ve also been getting in touch with other relevant parties such as disability rights groups; disabled people are among those who’ll be worst hit by staffing cuts.

“So far we’ve mainly leafleting members of the public. We’ve had a pretty good response from those who actually take a leaflet, but it’s sometimes hard to snap people out of the semi-comatose state you have to get into in order to commute to and from work every day!

“I think this sort of activity and engagement with the public could definitely help counter the anti-union, anti-strike media hysteria that will inevitably accompany any industrial action that comes out of this campaign. If people take a leaflet from you or talk to you at the station they can see you’re not a raving lunatic! It’s also about getting people to connect with LU workers on a human level. When I leafleted my own station, people who commute through my station who I sell tickets to every day didn’t recognise me out of my uniform! Building up that human contact between workers and our passengers could help build support if we launch a strike.

“I work in the ticket office at Loughton, which is at the far eastern end of the Central Line. The farther out from central London you go the worse the cuts are. My ticket office is facing 66% cuts, meaning we’ll be open for one third of the time we currently open for. Boris Johnson is trying to keep his promise to not close any offices by slashing opening hours. If the cuts go through, some offices will only be open for one hour during the day.

“One of the most important things now is to involve more workers in the campaign. It’s only when workers take ownership of a campaign like this that it becomes effective. Direct involvement and control by large numbers of workers is vital if this campaign is going to succeed.”

OutCast is an RMT activist.

“The campaign itself is a testament to the commitment of activists on London Underground fighting for both the workers’ right to work and the public’s right to have a safe transport environment. We’re fighting against a situation whereby the working class are being made to pay for the incompetence of the bankers and excesses of the government.

“So far there have been numerous days of action, with activists standing outside stations getting petitions signed and handing out leaflets to the public. We’ve collected hundreds of signatures. There are leaflets for specific stations being printed, and staff are spending their own time handing these out and explaining the problems these cuts will cause to the public. It’s the working class yet again suffering so the rich don’t have to. It’s time to stand up and be counted; the time to fight back is now.”

Clare Reilly is an activist and rep in RMT East Ham branch.

“There is absolutely no doubt that station staff are under direct attack from the bosses to save money and I for one don’t plan on going without a fight.

“If TFL want to save money then I suggest they start at the top where all the real money is being paid out, and get rid of some of the deadwood up there instead of targeting the lowest-paid workers who work bloody hard trying to keep an ageing system moving with staffing levels that are already at a bare minimum.

“We all need to get on board with the SOS campaign and dedicate whatever spare time we have. Making the general public aware of what is happening on their Underground is a very important part of this. With the upcoming ballot for strike action, we need to make sure we don’t let the national press attack the RMT without the general public having the facts of why we’re striking.

“The more public support we have the stronger our campaign will be. Nobody wants to see staffless stations, increased crime and a soulless, staffless transport network that we see in many other cities all over the world. I urge everyone who hasn’t already signed the SOS petition to do so. Come and join us on one of our days of action where we speak to the public outside stations, hand out leaflets and get names on the petition. I do not want to look back in five years time and think that I sat back and did nothing.”

Peter is a driver on London Underground and an RMT activist.

“It’s vital for safety reasons to have the numbers of staff that we currently have — as a minimum — so that safety issues on stations are identified and dealt with professionally and as quickly as possible.

“There are many scenarios that a driver is faced with such as faulty equipment where station assistance is needed to safely overcome the issue, or customer issues on board trains which could be a customer being taken ill where they need assistance straight away, or a customer being violent towards a driver working alone who would need assistance straight away. Of course with station staff working alone (as is already happening now anyway), the risk of assault to station staff would increase.

“Then there is the issue of senior LU managers being paid, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of pounds, whilst front line staff who actually do the job and provide the railway service take pay cuts and face losing their jobs. The team charged with finding cuts is made up of senior managers who were all seconded from their day jobs so they could look for “waste.” If they can be seconded to such a role with no adverse affect on the service, why not just get rid of them instead?

“Besides anything else, if an all-grades union like the RMT can’t fight together to protect 800 jobs, and demonstrate to members why they need to stand together, then we might as will give up. If these jobs go, the next step will be LU permanently de-staffing more and more stations, then other grades will come under attack until there’ll be nobody employed on the front line at LU or so few that we’ll have no way of defending our pay and conditions as we’ll all be standing alone.

“We need a real fightback on this; I’m looking forward to receiving an announcement of a ballot for strike action in the post!”

Do bosses "have to" make cuts?

London Underground tells us that it "has to" cut stations jobs because of the economic crisis. But a look at London Underground’s history shows that this is not just untrue — it is the opposite of the truth.

London Underground began in 1863, when private companies starting opening lines. By the 1920s, the Underground had expanded into a web of lines beneath London, run by several different private companies.

There was a recession during the 1920s, and the government gave a public subsidy to the private owners, explicitly both to improve the Tube and to create jobs at a time of high unemployment.

London Underground came into public ownership in 1933, under the new London Transport Passenger Board (LPTB).

The economy was again in recession, but public ownership led to investment, improvements and extensions on a large scale, with the added bonus of again creating jobs during another period of high unemployment. With the LPTB’s New Works Programme announced in 1934, the Underground saw extensions to the Central, Northern, Piccadilly and Bakerloo Lines, electrification of the Metropolitan line north of Rickmansworth, and new tunnels, stations and escalators. Despite improvements slowing during the war, by 1947 the average speed of the train service had increased by 18% since 1933.

Cutting jobs during recession simply increases unemployment and worsens public services: it does not help economic recovery, and certainly does not help workers or service users. Instead, the government should give extra funding to London Underground to improve its services, increase its staffing levels, bring forward its upgrades, make its stations more accessible, and build extensions and new lines. And it should bring the engineering functions back into an integrated, publicly owned London Underground, without compensating the private owners who have sucked so much out of the system.

London Underground and Tube Lines may be using the recession as a pretext for attacking jobs and conditions — but they are actually doing the opposite of what needs to be done. The government can pay people benefits to be out of work; or it can pay them wages to carry out socially-useful work. It’s obvious which is better, isn’t it?!

What you can do

1. Add your name to our petition, which can be found at http://bitly/tubesos

2.If you have a question about LUL’s job cuts or the RMT's campaign against them, drop an email to Janine Booth at janine@rmtlondoncalling.org.uk. We will answer your question, and compile the most popular and relevant questions into a “Frequently Asked Questions” leaflet.

3.If you work on London Underground, make sure that you are a member of RMT, and that the union has your up-to-date details (address, grade, location).

4.Encourage any of your workmates who are not yet members to join RMT.

5.Regularly check the London Transport RMT website: www.rmtlondoncalling.org.uk, and our special 'SOS: Staff Our Stations' webpage (www.rmtplatform.org.uk/sos) for updates.

6.Email Janine or text 07910 202 225 to order campaign materials, including leaflets for the public and our “SOS: staff our stations” stickers. Give leaflets to your friends, family and neighbours. The campaign organises regular leafleting; get in touch to find out when/where.

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