4 Reasons it’s Kicking Off on the London Underground

by an Anonymous Tube Worker

19 June 2015

The four unions organising on London Underground – RMT, TSSA, ASLEF, and Unite – have balloted their members for strikes. ASLEF’s ballot has been returned with a 98% majority in favour of strikes on an 81% turnout, and the union has scheduled a 24 hour strike over 8/9 July. The three other unions have their ballots due back on 30 June, and are almost certain to coordinate with ASLEF’s date if they receive majorities in favour of strike action. Coordinated action by all four Tube unions is almost unprecedented.

An RMT activist and supporter of the Tubeworker bulletin explains what’s going on.

1. Pay and ‘Night Tube’.

London Mayor Boris Johnson announced the imposition of 24-hour running – known as ‘Night Tube’ – on Fridays and Saturdays on five London Underground (LU) lines from September 2015. The unions weren’t consulted, and no agreements were in place for how it would be staffed.

Now LU bosses are playing catch-up with the Mayor’s vanity and obsessions with legacy, and are coming after our terms and conditions in order to ram through a deal to get us Night Tube-ready. They are not proposing any significant increase in staffing levels, despite the obvious need for it, and in fact are reducing frontline staff. They want staff to work anti-social rosters, and have stonewalled union health and safety reps’ demands for assurances that 24-hour running will be safe for passengers and staff.

LU has offered two lump-sum (and therefore non-pensionable) payments of £250, as a ‘bonus’ for implementing Night Tube, with an additional £250 for drivers, signal workers and track workers. With numerous scientific studies showing how shift working – and particularly night working – damages workers’ health, RMT has demanded a four-day, 32-hour week for all grades of workers on the Tube, to ensure that 24-hour running won’t wreck our work-life balance and our health.

LU has also bungled its attempts to get a settlement in place on Night Tube in pay talks. Directly-employed LU workers’ pay is regularly renegotiated, and a deal struck in 2011 is now up for renewal. LU has offered a two-year deal, with a 0.75% increase in year one, followed by an increase pegged to the Retail Price Index in year two. Although our salaries are relatively high compared to many other workers, a 0.75% increase would see them slip further behind increases in the cost of living (the average monthly rent in London is now nearly £1,500). We want a pay increase – and enhancements for Night Tube – to be flat-rate, consolidated payments, so lower-paid workers benefit most.

With passenger footfall and journey figures going up, with our bosses earning astronomical sums, and with railway workers in other companies such as Network Rail and Docklands Light Railway winning pay increases of 2% or more, many of us feel that the company’s offer is an insult – particularly as it doesn’t respond to any of the union’s wider claims, such as the demand for a shorter working week and the extension of staff travel passes to outsourced workers such as cleaners.

2. Job cuts.

We struck twice in 2014 against a management cuts plan. Of particular and immediate concern was the intention to cut nearly 1,000 frontline jobs through a combination of voluntary severance, local reduction in staffing levels through forced displacements, and not filling vacancies. We forced the company to reduce the figure slightly, but still face a cut of around 800 operational posts on stations.

A reduction in staffing level will make our working lives much more stressful, as well as negatively affecting the level of service we’re able to provide to passengers – especially those with particular needs, such as disabled passengers or those who don’t speak English.

The cuts programme also involves the closure of every ticket office across the network (again, hitting passengers with access needs hardest), and a regrading of staff that will see ticketing assistance – previously performed by specially-qualified staff in ticket offices on a higher wage – performed by a newly-created grade of station worker on substantially lower pay.

There are also cuts proposed in other areas, including the LU training department. Drivers on the Jubilee line are already involved in a local dispute over management’s attempt to change certain procedures so that they no longer have to be carried out by drivers, which many see as an attempt to de-skill the job and prepare the ground for driverless trains – the designs for which are already being commissioned.

Management’s vision for the future of the Tube is about de-staffing, automation to cut jobs rather than reduce workload, casualisation, and increasing private revenue. Already, ticket office space is being sold off to private retailers. LU’s publicly-owned status is not safe. The Hands Off London Transport campaign has sought to unite Tube workers with working-class community campaigners, including activists from Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC), to counterpose the bosses’ vision with our vision of a publicly-owned integrated transport network under democratic workers’ and passengers’ control.

3. Terms and conditions are under attack.

Underpinning much of our bosses’ current plans, particularly for restructuring the staffing of stations, is their desire to radically reform our terms and conditions. They want a new agreement that will allow them to change station workers’ shifts at 24 hours’ notice, and send us to work anywhere up to 45 minutes from our station. They want to impose new anti-social rosters with more ‘extreme’ shifts (very late nights or early mornings) and fewer weekends off. These proposals are the first steps towards casualising the LU workforce.

Union equalities reps have also identified how LU’s plan will systematically widen inequalities among staff, including a wider pay gap, increased pressure on workers with caring responsibilities, increased vulnerability to hate-motivated assaults through a huge increase in lone working, and disadvantaging disabled workers.

4. Outsourced workers are being hyper-exploited.

Only one of the four Tube unions, RMT, currently has any real orientation towards organising contractors and outsourced workers, such as cleaners. Although they are not involved in the main disputes, as they have different employers, RMT currently has live campaigns involving ISS and Interserve, the two main cleaning contractors on the Tube.

Last year, ISS (which has the cleaning contract on the Jubilee, Northern, and Piccadilly lines) locked out cleaners who refused to use a biometric fingerprinting device to book on for work. An uneasy truce was eventually reached in that dispute, but now ISS wants to force workers to use the devices to log in and out of every station they work at, rather than just at the beginning and end of a shift. Interserve (which has the contract for the rest of the Tube, as well as the Docklands Light Railway, where cleaners have recently struck in a dispute for pay justice) routinely short-pays its staff, and workers report systematic bullying and harassment from managers.

Both cleaning companies also outsource labour yet further, to agencies such as AGS, who pressure cleaners into registering as ‘self-employed contractors’ or ‘limited liability companies’ in order to avoid respecting statutory rights, paying National Insurance contributions, or paying tax on their wages.

LU fleet staff are also being balloted as part of a concurrent dispute about the use of agencies to provide trainers (rather than using directly-employed trainers); another example of the company’s obsession with outsourcing.

The author is writing in a personal capacity and wishes to remain anonymous.

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