Last weekend saw two shocking derailments on London Underground. On Friday evening, a Piccadilly line train derailed just outside Baron's Court station; on Sunday morning, several people were injured - at least one seriously - when a Northern line train came off the rails in a tunnel at Camden Town. Both seem to be the fault of poor track condition; both can almost certainly be blamed on the privatisation of the Tube's infrastructure.
The day after the second derailment, representatives of one of the tube workers unions, the RMT, held a big and angry meeting. The union has committed itself to writing to management to demand assurances over safety, including the restoration of checks on track condition every 24 hours. If there is no positive response by noon on Friday 24 October, RMT will prepare to ballot for strike action.
Due to the fragmentation of the workforce under PPP [Public-Private Partnership, i.e. partial privatisation], there will need to be separate ballots for London Underground Ltd staff (train drivers, station staff, signal operators and administration grades), and the maintenance workers in the three 'Infracos' (BCV Metronet, SSR Metronet, and JNP Tubelines). It is vital that the other unions - particularly ASLEF, which organises more than half of the Tube's drivers - join this action and ballot their members too.
Whilst the wheels of the balloting process turn painfully slowly, Tube staff are already discussing what we can do to defend ourselves immediately at work. Drivers on the Northern and Piccadilly lines are talking about observing a five miles per hour speed limit in the affected areas. Indeed all operational and engineering staff should use the safety rights available to them.
It has been reported that management have obstructed union health and safety reps' access to the crash sites. If this is true, then drivers, station staff and engineers must all respond by saying "If our safety reps can't look down there, then we are not prepared to work down there".
RMT is demanding that the private maintenance contracts be suspended pending investigations into the derailments. This is an important demand, and will be very popular amongst the Tube's passengers as well as the workforce.
The unions need to launch a public campaign alongside the industrial action. It could:
- organise a public petition, on paper and by e-mail, in support of the demand;
- use its Parliamentary group to push the issue in the Commons, and its nominee Mick Cash to raise it on the Labour Party National Executive Committee;
- organise a demonstration calling for PPP to be scrapped, and encourage our supporters to turn up to picket lines and show their support.
Following the Chancery Lane incident in January, there have been three major derailments of passenger trains in service: it is hard to remember the last time that happened.
London Underground managers were on hand to say to the TV cameras that we should not rush to any hasty conclusions, and that it might not turn out to be the fault of the 'Public-Private Partnership' (PPP). So they expect us to believe that it was just a coincidence that it has happened in the year that PPP came into effect!
They sounded like the Railtrack managers who tried to convince us that the Hatfield crash was caused by vandalism. Not long after, everyone accepted that it was caused by the deteriorating maintenance regime under privatisation.
PPP came into force this year as the government pressed ahead with it despite severe safety warnings, overwhelming public opposition, and a five-year fight by the unions. RMT and ASLEF did fight to stop PPP, but should now be prepared to learn some of the lessons of their defeat in order to avoid repeating them.
Firstly, the Tube's workforce is seriously weakened by its division into different unions. There should be one democratic, fighting union for all railway workers. Until this happens - and it is not going to happen overnight - we need the best possible unity in action.
Secondly, the industrial action should be organised under the maximum control of rank-and-file union reps and activists. That way, we could make it as effective as possible, both in building solid strike action, and in upholding our safety rights at work. Most of us know health and safety legislation is only as strong as the power of the union in the workplace. Union head offices are not in the habit of handing over control of disputes to the rank and file, so we should get organised to assert membership control.
Thirdly, the unions need to have a thought-out strategy, discussed and agreed by rank-and-file union reps and activists, who then go out and convince and involve the membership. It is not enough to hold one-off actions that are designed to register a protest but are not part of a strategic plan to win.
It is important that the shock and outrage that people feel now is not allowed to ebb away over the next few months. It is important that union leaders keep their promises to organise action. Otherwise, people will come to accept Tube derailments as a fact of life, rather like mainline rail crashes.