London Underground: solid strike against job cuts

Submitted by Matthew on 9 September, 2010 - 10:52 Author: Ira Berkovic

London Underground workers brought the capital’s underground system to a near standstill (6-7 September) as they struck against job cuts that would radically alter the way public transport is delivered in London.

Stations across the network were forced to close with all but one tube line either entirely suspended or running a greatly reduced services.

Management were forced to staff stations themselves or train up emergency scabs picked from back-office employees. Ironically, the scab or boss-run stations provide a chilling vision of what the Underground would be like permanently if management’s cuts are allowed to go through: unsafe stations run by skeleton crews of improperly-trained staff.

Despite media attempts to whip up anti-strike venom, public support for the strike was high as pickets made a special effort to take the pro-public service message of the strike to commuters.

Workers will strike again on 3 October and an indefinite overtime ban is already underway.

• More: www.rmtlondoncalling.org.uk

London Underground workers spoke to Solidarity about their strike on 6-7 September.

“A positive fight for our vision of public transport”

Janine Booth, station staff

The strike was brilliant. It was extremely well-organised and we put on more pickets than we’ve ever done before.

The turnout from station staff was great and the only stations that remained open did so either with hardly any staff at all or because managers worked them. There were very few actual scabs.

TSSA’s involvement in the strike is also significant. It’s literally historical — it’s their first strike on the Underground since the general strike of 1926! We also had a good experience with a lot of ASLEF drivers who respected our picket lines in several places.

There was a lot of public support on the picket lines themselves. We gave out over 20,000 leaflets and have had a flood of supportive emails from the public since then.

To me, this strike feels like the strikes against PPP a decade ago. There’s a real sense that this isn’t just about our pay but is a real, positive fight for our vision of public transport and how that service should be organised. The fact that we’re fighting alongside another union is also a similarity – then it was ASLEF, now it’s TSSA.

The task now is to make the action in between strike days effective. We need to make the overtime ban work properly; if people systematically refuse to work overtime then stations will close. We also need to be looking at implementing higher grade working bans and a boycott of the £5 minimum on Oyster top-ups.

There’s a political fight to be had too. The Tories have now walked out of two GLA meetings to make them inquorate when it looked like the cuts might be voted down.

“It was inspiring to witness the elevation of political consciousness”

“Cactus Man”, station staff

I got back from the picket line in a very optimistic mood. Only one member of staff [a driver] walked past us very sheepishly and the support amongst station staff has evidently been rock solid.

This fact will hopefully galvanise that minority of drivers, engineers and other grades who claimed that “station staff never stick up for themselves”. The stations at the eastern end of the Central Line were being staffed, almost exclusively by managers and office staff specially “licensed” for the occasion. Pity the passenger caught up in any dangerous incident on a strike day!

My companions on the picket were firstly a comrade from Waltham Forest Trades Council and latterly two 20-something station assistants on their first ever picket. It was inspiring to witness the elevation of their political consciousness as time and again working-class people expressed their support and the conspicuously wealthy sneered at us. One suited city gent even claimed to us that we had “cost him his job”.

As he was driving a top-of-the-range brand new Jag we concluded that we had done him a favour in hastening his well-funded retirement.

“Workers are developing a sense of their own power”

A Tubeworker, station staff

The strike went really well. Station staff showed that they’re capable of militancy and that we have power.

We’re often treated as second-class citizens to drivers and engineers within the union, and the strike will have shaken that up.

There were a lot of new experiences for many workers involved. I think some people were surprised at how much impact they had — it’s about workers developing a sense of their own power. There was also a real sense of solidarity Out of 100 people who were supposed to book on across the three stations I work at, hardly anyone did and the stations on my group that were kept open depended entirely on managers. We’ve built up some momentum now and we should capitalise on that.

We need to take a good look about what it would mean to actually win the dispute; we’re really going head-to-head with the people who are in power. That’s not to say we can only win if we topple the government, but we are fighting a group of people who are determined to resolve the recession by making us pay through jobs and services.

That makes the timing of the dispute, in terms of the spending review, very important. This could get a lot bigger before it gets resolved.

“There’s a real feeling of unity between the grades”

Peter North, driver

The strike had a big impact; all lines were affected and there were several suspensions. Even in places where trains were running, there were waiting times of up to 25 minutes. The strike obviously has management rattled.

There was a good level of support from drivers. A lot of drivers, including ASLEF members, didn’t come into work. There were ASLEF members on our picket line at Stratford, and I think that shows that the message is getting out. This isn’t just about station staff; there are plans to alter our safety procedures to essentially cut out any aspect that would require us to have a station worker to help us, so with the cuts to station jobs drivers are essentially being asked to do our job in a less safe manner.

The public outreach around the strike has also been excellent. Work has been done to contact disability rights groups and others who will be affected by the cuts.

There was also a better-than-usual level of information going out about the ways in which the issues behind the strike affect all grades; there’s a real feeling of unity between the grades building up now.

Given that several ASLEF drivers did join our picket lines I think there’ll be some pressure on the ASLEF leadership to look at how their own members are relating to the dispute on the ground and perhaps think about moving to a more supportive position.

Picket line reports

As well as AWL members who work on London Underground helping to organise and maintain pickets at their stations, other AWLers also visited picket lines to support the dispute, talk to the strikers, leaflet members of the public and distribute the Tubeworker bulletin.

One picket at Mile End, keen to take copies, told us that Tubeworker was a better and more reliable source of information than the union's official publication.

Pickets told us that scabs and managers had been drafted in from other stations to keep Mile End open — only for the station to eventually close when the Group Service Manager decided it was unsafe.

At London Bridge, managers doing station jobs for the day took regular visits outside to glower at the pickets and “check up” on the numbers on the picket line.

At Monument, managers caused chaos and threatened safety by closing the station but failing to lock the gates, meaning that confused passengers were left to wander around a near-deserted station without clear information about what was going on. At Leytonstone, only three out of 12 ASLEF drivers who were expected to go into work actually did so.

Tubeworker blog: www.workersliberty.org/twblog

“At war with Londoners”?!

The London media made no attempt whatsoever at maintaining even a veneer of impartiality, and its anti-strike, pro-boss rhetoric reached staggering new lows.

The Evening Standard's coverage of the strike was unashamed propaganda for management, casting the dispute as one in which tube workers were “at war with Londoners”. It praised the “defiance” of commuters who “used every means of transport available to try and beat the tube strike” (translation: some people caught the bus. Hold the front page!).

Its interviewees were overwhelmingly identifiably middle-class; it was hard to feel much sympathy for “Banker George White, 28, from Kennington” who apparently found the strike “incredibly annoying”, or “Stephen Ray, 37, a company director from Cobham in Kent”, who was forced to shell out “£15-20” for a taxi and was “not hugely impressed.”

There was almost no mention whatsoever of the massive cuts against which the tube workers are striking! Flashpoints of class struggle like this make the mainstream media’s role as ideological ‘tribunes’ of the boss class very clear. Workers' organisations need their own propaganda to counter that of the bosses.

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