As I write this piece all 270 London Underground stations are closed for the first time in 13 years because of co-ordinated strike action by the RMT, Unite, ASLEF and the TSSA. As with any form of industrial action politicians and the media take turns to be visibly outraged that workers have come together to collectively bargain. The build up of hostilities between management and the unions under Conservative governments there is much higher numbers of strikes, which in itself is a political calculation to make public attitudes harden against the trade union movement; the rhetoric put forward by the media and politicians must be challenged.
The dispute arose as a result of London Underground’s attempt, on the instruction of London Mayor Boris Johnson, to create a 24-hour tube service on weekends. The unions themselves has systematically stated that they are actually in favour of a 24-hour tube service for two clear reasons: firstly unions will believe that more jobs will be created or additional hours for existing workers will raise wages; secondly most London Underground workers currently on strike live in the capital and would welcome the benefits that a 24-hour tube network would provide.
London Underground (LU) offered a 2% pay rise, a £500 bonus for station staff available, as well as £2,000 for night tube drivers, which the trade unions welcome as a starting point for further negotiations, but also pointed out that they believed the offer was a divide-and-rule strategy as the bonus for drivers would only have affected 1,000 out of the 20,000-strong workforce.
The dispute arose from two things: concerns over working weekends and nights, and existing poor industrial relations. The trade unions stated that the current proposals didn’t provide safeguards to prevent their members from working unlimited numbers of nights and weekends. The bosses of LU have been hostile for the entirety of Boris Johnson’s term as mayor, most recently in regards to ticket office closures that have been forced through despite opposition from trade unions and many Londoners.
However, given the negotiations that were taking place, were the unions right to go on strike? In short, yes. The RMT union has released a pamphlet outlining their reasoning for going on strike, reaffirming their commitment to a night tube but also pointing out the government cuts to the budget will result in 850 jobs being cut, leaving a number of stations “dangerously under staffed”.
The pamphlet gives the example that the new proposed roster South Kensington Underground Station would mean that RMT members would continue to work 7 day/24 hour shift patterns, but would be rewarded with “one long weekend off in every 27 weeks”. I therefore do not begrudge all four unions having concerns about hours in this latest set of negotiations.
In an interview with BBC London News a negotiator for the ASLEF unions revealed that LU had sent an employee bulletin to every worker on the tube network stating that the offer was non-negotiable and that the unions only had four hours to accept the offer after LU refused to change their position for 3 months. It appears that the bosses of the tube network are relying on significant disruption in order to bully unions into accepting their terms lest they feel the wrath of hostile public opinion.
The unions were correct to go out on strike, but that didn’t stop Tory politicians coming out to criticise thus hastening the deterioration of industrial relations. Mayor Boris Johnson complained that this was a political act to undermine the announcements in the George Osborne’s first all-Tory Budget, and also claimed that the proposals from London Underground were never put to union members so the strike action is illegitimate.
On the first point the Budget, which was incidentally all the main news channels were talking about, finished around four hours before the strike had started; surely if the intention was to annoy the Chancellor the strike would have started at the same time an ended once he sat down.
If we ignore the fact that most of the strike will take place on a different day from the Budget, Johnson’s second point is a (misleading) fact. Although it is true that the deal wasn’t put to the membership of the trade unions, it was because of a diktat from LU negotiators; after the offer was submitted and the four hour deadline given, the union negotiators asked for a time extension so they could deliver it to their National Executive Committees and members- this request was rejected. So although it is not factually inaccurate to say that the offer wasn’t put to the members, the unions tried to but were, in effect, not allowed to.
Johnson’s final point about legitimacy is one that is always brought up by right-wing politicians despite the overwhelming hypocrisy it reveals. Here are some quick facts: the TSSA voted 76% in favour of industrial action from a 44% turnout (33.4% of total membership), the RMT voted 91% in favour from a 50% turnout (45.5% of total membership), Unite voted 84% in favour on an 82% turnout (68.9% of total membership), and the most moderate union ASLEF voted 98% in favour from an 81% turnout (79.4% of total membership). It is important to see these facts in the context of politicians citing their apparent illegitimacy because the Conservatives were elected with a majority despite only getting 24% of the voting population’s support. Calling the strikes illegitimate due to voter turnout is hilarious because the strikes are more legitimate than the government criticising them.
The people of London have been effected by tube strikes frequently in recent years however it is up to us to say that workers protecting their pay and conditions are not our enemies. The bosses of London Underground are seeking unreasonable terms from an intransigent position whilst criticising the strike as unnecessary; their last point is absolutely correct because the strike wouldn’t be taking place if they actually negotiated properly and gave union negotiators time to consult their members.
The conduct of Tory politicians demonising the strike on grounds of legitimacy in order to justify even further restrictions on trade union rights is essentially the of specious misinformation. We need to stand with our brothers and sisters on strike today and resist the media onslaught that will inevitably encourage Londoners to turn against workers on the Underground.