Dear London Transport User,
As you probably know by now, we (that is, London Underground station staff) are planning further strikes over 5-8 February. Many news reports focus almost exclusively not on the reasons behind our strikes, but on the impact it will have on you, the people who use the services our labour makes possible.
I'm writing this letter, as an LU station worker and supporter of the strikes, to urge you to resist our employer's, and the media's, attempts to turn you against us, and explain why you should support our strike.
Why are we striking?
We're striking to win an increased staffing level on the Tube.
There are other demands associated with our dispute, but they are all linked to this fundamental, central, issue: job cuts. Over the past 18 months, London Underground has reduced the frontline staffing level by nearly 1,000 posts.
If you regularly use central London stations, you may've noticed that the ticket halls seem busier. There are fewer staff on gatelines, meaning there are fewer people to answer your questions or assist you at ticket machines. If you're a disabled passenger, you might've found yourself waiting for longer for the assistance you need.
If you use outlying stations, you may have found they're frequently unstaffed. If an incident occurs, if you have an enquiry, if there's a problem with your ticket or Oyster card, there's literally no-one there to help.
For you, job cuts means a poorer service and less safe stations. For us, job cuts have meant fewer people doing more work.
As part of its job cuts, London Underground has de-staffed station control rooms at major locations like Canning Town. This has already led to significant safety incidents. Ask yourself if you want to travel on a network where there's no-one monitoring platforms, escalators, and concourses, and where, if an incident occurs, there's only one or two members of staff on duty, possibly in another part of the station entirely, with no way of knowing what's happened.
LU has also restructured the grading system on stations, introducing a new "Customer Service Assistant 2" grade. These members of staff are not safety-critical, meaning they cannot perform the full range of tasks necessary in an evacuation or similar incident. Despite this, they are being counted towards stations' "minimum numbers" (the legally-stipulated minimum staffing level a station needs to remain open). In an evacuation, they could do little more than stand by an exit and point. As a transport user, does that make you feel safe?
These workers are being exploited by London Underground. Despite not being safety-critical, they have been trained to carry out cash-handling duties previously performed by ticket office staff. This means workers paid £23k/year are doing work previously carried out by workers paid £36k/year.
In almost every other industry, workers who handle cash get a salary uplift to reflect the increased responsibility and risk (after all, if there's a discrepancy on the accounts, those workers' jobs are on the line). Only on London Underground are workers who handle cash frequently paid less than those who don't.
This is why we're striking. Our demands are:
London Underground is making these cuts because Transport for London, of which LU is a subsidiary, has had its central government funding slashed. The Tories plan to cut it entirely by 2020, which would make TfL the only metropolitan transport system in the world not to receive central government subsidy. This is part of the Tories' ideological project to under-fund and run down public services, increasing the prospects for privatisation.
Even within TfL and LU's current budgets, we believe it is possible to meet our demands. Our bosses have chosen to pass on these Tory cuts by looking to cut at the frontline rather than looking for savings elsewhere. However, in the longer term, only a political campaign against the funding cut will secure the money necessary to maintain and improve the Tube. We want Sadiq Khan to join with us in campaigning for the reinstatement of the subsidy, instead of using his position to attack us, his own employees.
Do you want an under-funded Tube service, with 1,000 fewer staff, with busy, central London stations staffed by non-safety-critical workers and with no-one in their control rooms?
Think about that situation, and ask yourself whether us winning our dispute and securing our demands will result in a better, safer service for you as a passenger.
Of course it will! It's in your interests as much as ours that we win this fight.
What about the inconvenience?
We know that our strikes have an impact on you, our passengers, as well as our employer's business. None of us relish the inconvenience we cause, but this is an inescapable reality of the nature of the work we do: every day, our labour moves you around London. If we withdraw that labour, London stops moving.
When any workers take industrial action, some inconvenience is caused to someone, and often to other working-class people. Public sector workers' strikes will negatively impact on the people who use the services we provide, and even private sector workers taking action may lead to a particular product that working-class consumers rely on not being produced or distributed.
In the past, we have experimented with forms of action that hit the employer in the pocket, but minimise the impact on passengers, such as "revenue strikes". We should explore those tactics again. But our fundamental form of leverage and power is the withdrawal of our labour. The right to withdraw labour is what ultimately distinguishes a worker from a slave. Bluntly, it is not a right any worker should forego because exercising it might inconvenience other people.
In asking you to support us, we are asking you to rise above the immediate feelings of frustration you might have about having a longer commute to work, or having to stand on a packed bus. We are asking you to look at a bigger picture, both to respect our right to withdraw our labour, and to see how, in the long run, a few days' inconvenience might be a reasonable trade off for the improvements you will benefit from if we win our dispute.
"You don't see me striking!"
Part of the reason our strikes attract such extraordinary and exaggerated venom (in an increasingly barbaric world, is "misery" really a proportionate term to use to describe the impact of our strikes?) is because we are an exception to a rule. Strike figures are at the lowest ever levels, and the trade union movement is half the size it was at its peak in 1979. Taking industrial action only seems like a reckless or "selfish" thing to do because so many of us have become acculturated to meekly accepting our lot; to giving up on the idea that we have any power at work; to accepting that the bosses have all the power and that job cuts, wage freezes, and other attacks on our rights at work can perhaps be grumbled about but never stopped or reversed.
Another aspect of this acculturation is that the relatively better pay, terms, and conditions that workers like ourselves have managed to win and defend become something for other workers to be resentful of, rather than aspire to. They are encouraged in that resentment by the right-wing, bosses' media, desperate to divide worker against worker, and never calling attention to the really obscene differentials - which are not between the levels of pay of different workers, but between workers and our employers, within every industry.
All of this is embodied in the tragically ironic phrase every Tube worker will have heard a version of at least once: "Things at my work are shit, but you don't see me striking."
Perhaps you've uttered this phrase yourself, or thought it. But it doesn't have to be like that. You could organise at work too. Yes, not every group of workers has the same industrial leverage as public transport workers, and not every strike will be a success. But there is no group of workers that has no power at all. If you have a boss, then that boss relies on you to make profit. That means you have power. We ask for your solidarity when we exercise ours, but we will also extend it to you in exercising yours.
What can you do?
If you support our strikes, you can:
All of that will be valuable and appreciated. But the most essential and powerful way to express solidarity is not just to support what we're doing, but to join us in a common struggle. That means organising in your own workplace and fighting for better and safer conditions, and more rights and power for workers.
If you're not a member of a trade union, you can find out which union covers your sector using the TUC's union finder here. If there is no union organising in your sector, you can join a general union such as Unite or GMB. In some sectors and industries, such as parts of the so-called "gig economy" in companies like Deliveroo and Uber, some workers have organised through non-TUC-affiliated independent unions like the Independent Workers' union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the United Voices of the World (UWV).
Joining a union and becoming part of the labour movement makes you part of a collective struggle. We look forward to a conversation that's less about the inconvenience we might cause each other, but what support we can provide to help each other win.
Yours in solidarity,
A member of London Underground station staff, RMT activist, and Tube striker.