The fight against Tube privatisation reviewed (part 2)

Submitted by Janine on 2 July, 2004 - 12:00

The second part of this article takes us from the RMT settling its strike action in late spring 2001 through to the Government's eventual victory in 2003.

You can read part 1 of this article here.

9 May 2001 - RMT announces further strikes on 4 and 6 June

The RMT General Grades Committee meeting which had decided to suspend the 3 May strike had also decided that should reps reject the offer, strike action would go ahead on 15 May. But when it named new strike dates, 15 May was dropped, and action would not resume until June. It was a good idea to target General Election week (polling day, delayed due to the foot-and-mouth crisis, was 7 June), with two 24-hour stoppages that would cause maximum impact and embarrassment to the government. But it was a long time to wait: more than two months after our last strike. Momentum was slipping further.

11 May 2001 - The Conservative Party announces that if it won the General Election, it would introduce legislation to ban strikes on London Underground

To increase the pressure, our Executive representative finally got RMT to call a national demonstration against PPP and for the renationalisation of the railways. It was scheduled for 2 June, the Saturday before the General Election. But under the leadership of Vernon Hince (deputising for a sick Jimmy Knapp), the union deliberately did nothing to publicise its own protest event. The other unions had shown no interest in organising any kind of demonstration at any point in the campaign.

16 May 2001 - The Evening Standard publishes a double-page witch-hunt against RMT's leading left-wingers, calling them "The men who are wrecking the lives of London's commuters"

Shaken by the union's refusal to settle, LUL came back to the negotiating table with an improved offer. Now, the actual phrase 'no compulsory redundancies' was included, and meant repeated job offers to redundant workers, rather than just one. Pensions and travel facilities were more securely protected. Reductions in staffing would have to be exhaustively negotiated. Transfers to private employers would be suspended pending the talks between the government and Bob Kiley.

29 May 2001 - London Underground offers £250 attendance bonuses to drivers (only) as enticement to break the following week's strikes

This was enough for both the RMT and the press to declare that the company had conceded 'jobs for life' and to describe it as 'the best deal in British industry'. It certainly proved that we had been right to reject the shabby offer that Bob Crow had urged us to accept.

But, in Workers' Liberty's view, the union should still have rejected it.

  • The deal itself was not as good as it looked at first sight.
  • It contained get-out clauses for the employers. For example, the guarantee of 'no compulsory redundancies' was dependant on the union co-operating with 'organisational change and new working arrangements'.
  • It left the employers the option of reducing the workforce through means other than compulsory redundancy eg. voluntary redundancy, natural wastage, job restructuring.
  • Although management would have to go through a torturous process to cut staffing levels, the deal still allowed them to do it.
  • Any agreement is only as strong as the union's ability to fight, which would be seriously compromised by the fragmentation of the workforce under PPP.
  • It was easy to predict that if we stopped striking, the Prescott/Kiley talks would come to nothing.

The key point was that under this deal, PPP would still go ahead and signing this deal would - to all practical purposes - end the fight against it. It was as though the Union of Turkeys had won a deal for nicer food and warmer straw, so had given up fighting against Christmas.

1 June 2001 - RMT reps' meeting: union accepts LUL's offer, calls off strikes, and settles the dispute

This time, RMT at least held a reps' meeting before calling off its strikes. But, with John Leach recommending the deal, the majority of reps spoke for accepting it, albeit with a significant minority against. The union accepted the deal and cancelled the strikes.

Sometimes, unions have to accept inadequate deals. If you know you can go no further, or if things are falling apart, you sometimes need to save the union from a rout at the hands of the employer, by signing a deal that digs a trench for you at the point you have reached.

But this was not one of those occasions. We still had a confident membership, a ballot mandate, and a popular cause. We had neither won nor lost yet, so RMT should have kept going. If it had gone ahead and held the strikes in General Election week, we could have had an enormous political impact. The union was shying away from finding out quite how effective we could have been. After the election-week strikes, RMT should have called everyone together to assess where we were, and to renew our fight against PPP.

That did not happen because the union was still stuck in bad habits it had practised for years. It had decided early on to fight PPP on employment demands only, rather than taking on privatisation head-on. The fruit of this policy was that when those limited demands appeared to be met, the union settled. RMT was still hemmed in by unnecessary caution that stopped it allowing the members to prove how hard we could fight and how determined we still were to win. And without a well-organised rank-and-file body, when union leaders lost the will to keep up the fight, activists were not confident enough to force them to.

Although the fight against PPP lasted a full five years, the first six months of 2001 were the crucial time. During those months, the campaign reached its exciting, inspiring peak. But within a couple of months, weak leadership had allowed that to fritter away. As our story has shown, some union leaders fell by the wayside sooner than others - some had never showed anything resembling leadership to start with - but by June, there was no fight left.

2 June 2001 - RMT national demonstration flops

The day after agreeing the deal, RMT's national demonstration took place. It was a complete flop. The union's head office had produced no publicity and no encouragement to branches and members to attend. The handful who turned up went to the nearest Tube station to give out leaflets instead of marching.


Labour won the General Election by a landslide, but with the lowest turnout since all adults were allowed to vote. While various politicians blamed the electorate for being apathetic, the reality was that voters were finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between the contending parties.

Many Tube workers were not inclined to vote for the Labour Party that was privatising them, or the Tory Party that they knew would be even worse. Some looked to the Liberal Democrats. Elephant and Castle ASLEF invited local LibDem MP Simon Hughes to speak at its branch meeting. The LibDems chased Tube workers' votes, delivering a pack to each station which looked like a management circular and pretended that they genuinely opposed PPP.

But the LibDems did not deserve Tube workers' votes. The party did not support the renationalisation of the railways; it opposed our strikes; and it supported the web of anti-union laws that had so hampered our campaign. The Liberals had always been a bosses' party, and they still were.

Some Labour candidates did deserve our support - for example, John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, received the enthusiastic backing of the RMT and its local branch. Elsewhere, the Socialist Alliance gave people the opportunity to vote for policies supporting public ownership and candidates with a record of support for workers' struggles. These included South West Trains driver Greg Tucker, Tube station supervisor Janine Booth, and solicitor Louise Christian, who represented the Paddington crash victims. In addition to the Socialist Alliance, there were a handful of other decent, working-class candidates - for example, Save Our Services in Wandsworth.

The rail unions still backed Labour, and appeared to do so without qualification or criticism. RMT donated £60,000 to Labour's election campaign - more than a pound per member. It could have told the Labour Party that it would make no donation unless Labour dropped PPP. It could - even within its existing rules tying it to Labour - have spent the money on its own material campaigning for a Labour victory but promising a fight for renationalisation.

However, RMT - on the quiet - did not stop its branches expressing support for non-Labour, socialist candidates. A few branches backed local Socialist Alliance candidates, but the London Transport Regional Council voted down a proposal to do so, substituting it with a resolution to back 'anyone who backs us'. In practice, this meant that the Region offered endorsement to no-one. But in theory, it could have meant backing parties which claimed to oppose PPP, whatever their policies on other issues, whether or not they were socialist, whatever their history, and whatever class they represent or serve.

7 June 2001 - Labour wins General Election

Bar some fringe candidatures, the General Election was a contest between establishment parties all of which supported privatisation and opposed workers' rights. The voice of working-class people, the policies we needed, were absent - pushed out of the Labour Party by Blair, always anathema to the Tories and LibDems. In this situation, the unions should have fought for the principle that workers need an independent, socialist voice in politics.

6 July 2001 - Health & Safety Executive confirms it is likely to approve PPP as 'safe'


A couple of weeks after the election, and after he had held the job for only ten weeks, the government removed Bob Kiley as Chair of London Transport. Now the industrial and electoral pressure was off, Blair felt safe to abandon all pretence of a 'new deal' and 'compromise' over PPP. Kiley's replacement was Sir Malcolm Bates, the man Kiley had himself replaced, and whose background was at Balfour Beatty, one of the leading contenders for the privatisation prize.

17 July 2001 - government sacks Bob Kiley as Chair of London Transport

Kiley - still Livingstone's commissioner for transport - threatened to publish a report that, he claimed, damned PPP. London Underground Ltd took legal action to prevent its publication.

18 July 2001 - Court grants LUL interim injunction preventing publication of Deloitte and Touche report into PPP

LUL's argument was that the report contained 'commercially sensitive' information. Even though LUL was a public body, it thought that the public had no right to know about the issues, and that business interests came before democracy, openness, safety, train services, or anything else.

So began a series of legal battles over PPP between Livingstone's administration and Blair's government. Mayor Ken launched legal action for judicial review of PPP.

23 July 2001 - Judicial review of PPP opens at the High Court

RMT demonstrated outside the court in support of Ken and Kiley, and was joined by Friends of the Earth, Transport 2000, TubeSense and others. On the one hand, it was good to see the RMT - alone amongst the Tube unions - still putting up some form of protest against PPP. But on the other, it was sad to see that the trade union movement that had wielded so much power earlier in the year had reduced itself to the role of cheerleaders waving placards outside Ken's court cases.

Livingstone's lawyers told the High Court that PPP breached the government's own legislation, because it was inefficient and unsafe, and it conflicted with the 1999 Greater London Authority Act. But Justice Sullivan upheld the government's case that its authority was superior because it derived from Parliament.

30 July 2001 - Justice Sullivan rules that the government has the legal right to impose PPP

Justice Sullivan? Yes, him again: the same judge who had banned RMT's New Year strikes back in 1998.

It was easy to predict that the High Court would not deliver a victory to Tube workers and passengers. Even Ken Livingstone's legal team had estimated his chances of winning at less than 50%.

After all, none of the privatisations of the past two decades had been illegal, so why would this one be? And even if, by some fluke or technicality, it were, the government could just pass a new law to make it legal.

Taking the issue to court was a strategy which could not win. For the unions, it was the only thing they could think of to do now the industrial struggle had been settled. For Mayor Ken, it was an alternative to pursuing the strategy that could actually win ie. mobilising Londoners and supporting strikes. Perhaps he wanted to keep favour with the Evening Standard; perhaps he feared encouraging all sort of struggles and fightbacks which may have made the Mayor's life uncomfortable.

31 July 2001 - Justice Sullivan lifts the injunction, and allows the publication of the Deloitte and Touche report

Ken and Kiley's consolation was that they could now publish the Deloitte and Touche report, which cast major doubts over whether PPP provided value for money. This may have looked like another weapon we could pick up and throw at PPP. But if so, it was a grenade with the pin already out - for the unions at least, this argument could blow up in our faces.

In what other circumstances would 'value for money' prevail? From management's point of view, big pay rises for Tube workers are poor value for money. State-of-the-art safety systems might fail the value-for-money test, as ATP had failed the test of 'cost per life saved', resulting in 31 deaths at Paddington.

6 August 2001 - Ken Livingstone announces that he will not appeal against Justice Sullivan's judicial review ruling

In August, the National Audit Office produced a report which severely criticised PPP, casting doubts on its viability and value for money.

23-24 August 2001 - Court refuses LUL permission to appeal against the decision to allow publication of the Deloitte and Touche report

We could not rely on state bodies - whether the National Audit Office, the Health and Safety Executive, or the courts - to rescue us from PPP. Neither would any number of reports, either official or 'independent', save us.

Only working-class struggle could win. Unfortunately, undue optimism about the effectiveness of these bodies, their reports and rulings helped to demobilise the very struggle that could actually have stopped PPP.


Underground workers were not prepared to give up yet. We knew that we needed to revive the campaign, and that safety was the crucial issue. Our strikes earlier in the year had forced management to set up a new safety body, but it was likely to be just a talking shop if we did not force it to take on the key issues.

29 August 2001 - RMT Regional Council passes a resolution to table safety demands that could lead to further strikes

So Workers' Liberty members proposed that the unions table a set of demands that would confront the inherent dangers of PPP:

  • union health & safety reps to have the right to stop any unsafe work;
  • unions to inspect and approve all work plans before they went ahead;
  • any company convicted of breaching health and safety law to be suspended from working on the Underground;
  • bring back guards;
  • increase station staffing.

If these demands were agreed, it would be a huge step for safety and would probably prompt both the government and the private companies to back out of PPP. If not - a more likely scenario - the unions would be in dispute again, and strike action would be back on the cards.

RMT's Regional Council agreed this proposal unanimously. But the union did not carry it out. It did not even table the demands, let alone start a dispute.

23 October 2001 - RMT Regional Council passes resolution that the union should hold a strike ballot and a national demonstration against PPP

Two months later, the Regional Council unanimously passed another resolution calling for a strike ballot and a national demonstration against PPP. Four months after that, it agreed another, similar resolution, and the union's wheels finally began to creak into action.

ASLEF and TSSA simply ignored the need - and their members' desire - to fight PPP. RMT was better, but seemed to treat its branches and Regional Council as advisory bodies, feeling no obligation to carry out decisions unless the leadership wanted to.

1 January 2002 - Pat Sikorski takes over from John Leach as London Transport workers' representative on RMT's National Executive


Jimmy Knapp's death from cancer forced an election for RMT General Secretary. Bob Crow won with 12,051 votes, against Phil Bialyk's 4,512 and Ray Spry-Shute's 1,997. The RMT was the latest union to elect a leader who was part of what the press dubbed 'the awkward squad'. One of the first had been ASLEF's Mick Rix.

13 February 2002 - Bob Crow elected General Secretary of RMT

Bob Crow had two big things going for him. Unlike his main opponent, he enjoyed a fight against the employer, and he is no fan of Tony Blair. For those reasons, he deserved our votes.

Later in the year, members of massive engineering union Amicus would elect Derek Simpson as General Secretary, against Tony Blair's favourite union leader, Sir Ken Jackson. Under Jackson, Amicus' predecessor union, the AEEU, had earned a woeful reputation for collaboration with employers, signing no-strike 'sweetheart deals'. Despite having members on the Tube, Jackson had provided the Evening Standard with a front-page story in 2001, urging Underground workers to break their own unions' strike call. No wonder his members kicked him out.

Members of RMT, ASLEF, Amicus and other unions voted for the 'awkward squad' because we wanted leaders who would put up a fight on the basic issues that faced us at work: pay, hours, privatisation, bullying managers. 'Awkward' candidates won despite the anti-union laws, despite the years of relentless propaganda against union militancy, despite (or maybe because of) support for the right-wing candidates from New Labour and the press.

28 February 2002 - RMT Regional Council passes resolution to relaunch the fight against PPP

But the 'awkward squad' are far from perfect. In 2001, Rix, then Crow, had derailed our fight against PPP. Both uphold control of the union by the General Secretary and head office bureaucracy rather than by rank-and-file members. Even with brilliant leaders, we would still need independent rank-and-file organisation to keep them on their toes. With leaders who are less than brilliant, we need it even more.

We had lived through an era of 'business unionism' and slavish loyalty to the Labour leadership, typified by Lew Adams and Jimmy Knapp respectively. (TSSA's General Secretary at this time, Richard Rosser, was worse than both.) After this, the election of Rix, Crow and Simpson was a welcome return to the basic idea of trade unions: that they should fight for their members.


10 May 2002 - Potters Bar crash

If anyone thought that the crisis on the railways was over, Potters Bar proved them wrong. Seven people died and 76 were injured when a train derailed going over a set of points and ploughed into the platform at Potters Bar station.

After the customary red herrings about 'vandalism' and 'sabotage', the reason for the crash became clear. Nuts were missing from the points, the responsibility of private contractor Jarvis. Once again, privatisation had killed. And once again, New Labour had blood on its hands.

28 May 2002 - Stephen Byers resigns as Secretary of State for Transport

Jarvis is part of TubeLines, the consortium lined up to take over the JNP Infraco under the Tube's Public-Private Partnership. In a breathtaking disregard for human life and safety, the government saw no reason to stop this going ahead.

The union leaders pointed this out, and Bob Crow in particular said all the right things in the media's post mortem of Potters Bar. But where was the call to action? If he had said "Everyone on the streets, march through London next Saturday to demand renationalisation", then tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands would have responded.

But at least the industrial struggle against PPP was back on.

12 June 2002 - RMT mass meeting to launch strike ballot over safety


In the wake of the carnage at Potters Bar, it was no surprise that the public still backed our fight against PPP. One poll showed that 80% of Londoners supported our right to strike over safety.

9 July 2002 - RMT strike ballot result: 88% Yes

And even though the fight had ground almost to a halt over the previous year, Underground workers could still gain confidence from what we had achieved so far. We had delayed PPP, won the public argument, and achieved some protections that we would not have done had we not taken action. New Labour had been trying to get PPP in since it was elected in 1997. It was their flagship privatisation, but five years on, the government had still not managed to push it through. That was mainly down to us.

10 July 2002 - Health & Safety Executive approves the safety case for PPP

RMT demanded more consultation over safety concerns, and when management refused, balloted its members. LUL again threatened legal action, but succeeded only in delaying the ballot by two weeks, so by mid-July, we were on strike again. Unfortunately, RMT was left to act alone, but ASLEF at least advised its members to respect picket lines. TSSA, as usual, scabbed.

17-18 July 2002 - 24-hour RMT strike over PPP/safety concerns

The action was very effective, achieving a virtual shutdown and wide support. At Lillie Bridge engineering depot, only 2 out of 300 workers booked on for duty! This was despite the fact that many Lillie Bridge workers were not officially involved in the strike, as they worked for contractors, and some were not even unionised. A key factor was a level of local rank-and-file organisation, with an independent workers' newsletter, 'Workmates', and a depot committee with representatives from each gang.

After the July strike, what next? Workers' Liberty argued that:

  • ASLEF should join in;
  • RMT should call further action;
  • activists should set up local joint-union strike committees.

18 July 2002 - Derek Simpson beats Sir Ken Jackson to win General Secretary of Amicus


The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) gave its backing to PPP, agreeing its Safety Case - the document that management must produce to outline how they will ensure that the railway runs as safely as possible.

The HSE had previously made criticisms, smoothing some of the rougher edges of PPP and giving the appearance of doing its job. Now, it said, the problems had been overcome and, most absurdly, 'the lessons of Railtrack had been learned'.

A body like the HSE might tinker with the details, but it accepts the political and economic status quo. It is a government body which does not challenge what is fundamentally unsafe about capitalism and private enterprise. It will advise a few improvements, but still upholds a system which, right down to its core, will always put profit before safety.

Bob Crow rightly commented about the HSE's approval of PPP: "The HSE officials are the same which gave the railway a clean bill of health before the Hatfield rail crash. The HSE is involved in a paper exercise which bears no resemblance to reality."

Yes, there should be a body with the remit to investigate and ensure safety. But it should be publicly accountable - to workers and service users - and have the power to call businesses and government to heel. In the absence of such a body, we can rely only on our own struggles to uphold safety standards.


Mayor Livingstone was back in court. This time, he was challenging an alleged £1.5b 'funding gap' in the PPP plans, and arguing that LUL was acting in breach of European Union rules on competition.

23 July 2002 - Ken Livingstone and Bob Kiley's latest court case begins

But after only a few days of arguing in front of Mr Justice Scott Baker, Livingstone withdrew his case, and officially threw in the towel. He would now no longer fight PPP, he said, but would work with the government to ensure its most effective implementation.

26 July 2002 - Ken Livingstone withdraws his legal challenge

Ken Livingstone had been, at best, an unreliable ally. Now, sections of the press seemed to expect that because Livingstone had given up the fight, Tube workers would as well. They had portrayed our struggle as 'Ken's campaign', even though he had done little more than verbally criticise the government and argue hopeless court cases, leaving the real battle to others. In truth, the fight against Tube privatisation had done more for Ken Livingstone (getting him elected London Mayor) than Ken Livingstone had done for the fight against Tube privatisation.
His surrender was a blow to our fight - although it was unexpected only to those who had too much faith in him to start with. But just because Ken had given up, we did not have to.

2 August 2002 - Pat Sikorski elected RMT Assistant General Secretary; London Transport seat on RMT National Executive becomes vacant


LUL management was creating a dispute over the annual negotiations over pay and conditions. Despite the 2001 agreement, there had still been no progress on achieving a 35-hour week for all grades, or on providing the same rights to pensions and privilege travel for all staff regardless of when they joined the company. We still had a 'two-tier' workforce, and the unions quite rightly demanded that the inequality end now.

We also needed a decent rise in pay rates. With the ever-rising cost of housing and living in London, many Tube workers were struggling. While newspapers ran headlines about 'greedy' drivers or supervisors on £30k+, they did not mention Station Assistants on £19k or track workers on £16k - nor that £30k is no fortune, especially if you have a family to support.

LUL's propaganda compared our pay rates with supermarket checkout or school dinner workers - rather than with, say, managers, or judges, or MPs! In any case, the fact that dinner ladies are paid even less than us should not mean that we do not deserve a rise - but that they deserve an even better one.

The unions claimed 5.7%; LUL offered 3% (one-year deal), or 2.7% then Consumer Price Index + 0.7% (two-year deal). The union claimed equal hours, pensions and privs; LUL offered nothing but more talks.

Other public sector workers were also taking action against low pay and for higher London Weighting - council workers, teachers, lecturers, posties. The unions recognised that these fights were linked, and set up a Public Sector Alliance. The PSA had the potential to co-ordinate, and thus strengthen, a concerted rebellion against poverty pay. To do this, it would have had to build itself beyond the head offices in the branches and workplaces. Sadly, it did not.

LUL's attitute was harder than in previous years. The company refused to improve the offer, then announced it would stop talking and impose its offer. The unions had a stark choice. Either go belly-up, and let management get away with this, ensuring they would do the same for years to come. Or take action.

To no-one's surprise, TSSA took the first option. ASLEF and RMT took the second, and held strike ballots.

3 September 2002 - RMT strike ballot result: 80% Yes vote

LUL upped the stakes again, launching an anti-union campaign without recent precedent. The company: banned RMT and ASLEF from talking to new workers at the training school; cancelled reps' full-time release; and threatened to count strike action as non-attendance 'for the purpose of potential disciplinary action'. LUL even set up a phoneline for staff to report harrassment related to the strike. When union members called to report managers trying to intimidate them into strike-breaking, they were told that the phoneline was only for scabs to complain about union activists. It was a dirty propaganda trick.

24-25 September 2002 - RMT and ASLEF joint strike over pay and conditions

None of these tactics succeeded in breaking the strikes. On the first strike day, only 14 of 600 drivers reported for work, and not a single train ran. It was the first total shutdown that any of us could remember.

As well as lively pickets at depots, some union branches also picketed selected stations. This proved effective, persuading several workers to strike who would otherwise have scabbed, and challenging the thinking that strikes were really about drivers not station staff. 'We don't picket stations, only depots' was one of those unwritten rules under the heading 'We have always done it this way'. Unions need new thinking and imaginative tactics, so traditions like this should be questioned and, if necessary, abandoned.

1-2 October 2002 - RMT and ASLEF joint strike over pay and conditions

The second strike day was just as successful. But as LUL appeared unwilling to budge, activists talked about how we might win. Step up the action, with two strike days in the next pay period. Co-ordinate further action with other public-sector unions, in particular the firefighters.


Many RMT reps and activists were arguing for strikes over both PPP/safety and pay.

  • We had strike ballot mandates for both.
  • The issues were linked, as LUL and the government tried to face down our pay demands so as not to frighten off the PPP bidders.
  • Similarly, we could not accept that there was 'no money' for better pay and conditions while there was plenty for private consultants - and, as RMT rightly pointed out, "management are already trying to offset the huge costs [of] PPP by offering our members a derisory pay deal".
  • Union members were still prepared to fight PPP. Union bureaucrats often think that members are only concerned about the money in our pockets, rather than 'wider' issues of politics or service standards - but it is just not true.
  • It made sense to act in as unified and effective a way as possible.

But instead of fighting on both issues, the union head offices dropped the fight on both. (TSSA had not fought on either to start with, and ASLEF only on pay.)

RMT and ASLEF's publicity for the pay strike had shifted its emphasis. It was no londer 'Decent Pay and Workplace Equality Now'; instead, it was 'Mediation Now'. They probably thought this was good propaganda, exposing the employer's refusal to 'be reasonable' and go to mediation. But in reality, the unions were making themselves look weak, and setting themselves a trap by putting too much faith in mediation.

ASLEF & RMT settled the pay dispute for a promise from Ken Livingstone that when he took over TfL (still nearly a year away), the issue would go to mediation and Ken would honour the outcome.

Workers' Liberty - and other Tube activists - felt that the head offices had settled for less than the members had shown ourselves prepared to fight for, and that Tube workers should not have to wait another year for a claim that had dragged on for years already. We warned of the consequences of this deal: if the unions stopped fighting, the mediator would not deliver; and the new private employers would try to renege on Livingstone's promise.

Our warnings proved true. A year later, mediator Ken Burchill awarded us only an extra 0.75% pay rise and yet more talks (ie. no real progress) on hours, pensions and privs. Better than nothing, maybe, but way less than we could have won. And yes - the Infracos ran to their lawyers to get themselves out of even this small rise. It seemed that the union head offices had failed to learn a crucial lesson: that what you win depends not on how right you are, but on how hard you fight.

RMT quietly dropped its action over PPP, without a vote by its members to do so, and without any progress on its safety demands. The Mayor and the other unions had already surrendered. It was now becoming clear that the biggest and best of the Tube unions had also given up the fight against privatisation.


A firefighter's maximum pay was a mere £21,500 per year for a 42-hour week. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) rightly said that this was appalling, and that their wages should be £30,000. They had been protesting, lobbying and decorating fire engines and stations with publicity for their cause.

The government and the employers ignored them, so now they had to take firmer action. Firefighters were united in one union, and a huge majority voted for their first national strike in 25 years.

18 October 2002 - result of FBU strike ballot over pay: 87.6% Yes

At TUC Congress, Bob Crow made the headlines with a strong speech supporting the FBU and a promise of solidarity action from rail workers. RMT and FBU head offices produced a joint leaflet supporting the strike. FBU activists visited union branches and Underground workplaces; Tube workers collected money for the FBU strike fund at work and visited fire stations and picket lines.

Solidarity is crucial to the success of any working-class struggle. Solidarity between Tube workers and firefighters could strengthen both our campaign against PPP and theirs for decent pay. Firefighters told us about dragging dead bodies out of crashed trains since mainline privatisation, and safety was one of our major concerns about Tube PPP.

It is precisely because solidarity is so powerful that the Tory government had made solidarity strikes illegal and the New Labour government had kept them so. But there was another way in which we could both protect ourselves and help the firefighters - by insisting that London Underground be closed during FBU strikes because it was not safe.

The Fire Service is essential to the safe day-to-day running of the railway. Every day, firefighters attend fire alerts, smoke in tunnels and trackside fires. When disaster strikes, they attend crashes. They save lives, and lives are in danger without them.

Union pressure yielded some concessions. More than twenty stations - those accessed only by deep lifts - would close on the strike days. Engineering 'hot work' was suspended and other restrictions agreed.

But LUL insisted that the service must run. The company argued that the increase in risk was minimal; that the threat of terrorism was irrelevant; and that we had 'replacement fire cover' - ancient, slow-moving Green Goddesses staffed by soldiers with inadequate equipment and training. To no-one's surprise, the Railway Inspectorate endorsed LUL's plans.

But Tube workers knew that it would be unsafe to work on strike days, and we prepared to use our legal right to refuse to work on safety grounds. Although individual workers can exercise this right, they will be much more confident to do so with strong organisation and clear leadership from the union.

TSSA was saying nothing. ASLEF supported the FBU strike, but did not call for refusal to work. RMT head office sent a letter to its Tube members saying that we should refuse to work if we considered it unsafe, and providing a pro-forma memo to hand in to managers.

This was helpful, and certainly a step in the right direction. But it fell short of the strong leadership we needed. The unions should have given clearer advice to members to refuse to work normally, and backed this up by sending union leaders around the workplaces with FBU reps, answering questions face-to-face.

As it was, the ball was left in individual members' court. Where we were strong at a rank-and-file level, we organised to refuse: getting members to fill in their pro-formas, talking to all those due to work on the strike day so that they knew they would not be alone in taking action.

Again, unofficial newsletters played an important role. Workers' Liberty's Tube bulletin helped to build people's confidence by giving examples of previous occasions of refusal to work.

When the FBU leadership cancelled its first two strikes, uncertainty made rank-and-file organisers' task even harder. But when the FBU took its first strike action, 355 Tube workers defied management's threats and refused to work their normal duties.

13-15 November 2002: 48-hour FBU strike

The action was most effective amongst drivers on the Hammersmith and City, Piccadilly and Northern lines. On the Piccadilly, only ten out of 64 scheduled trains ran. It was an excellent display of solidarity and defiance, led and run from the grass roots. Despite its threats, LUL shied away from talking disciplinary action against the refusers.

22-30 November 2002 - 8-day FBU strike

But this did not last into the second strike. LUL - showing employers' solidarity with the Fire Service bosses - sent refusers home without pay. The company showed contempt for its employees' genuine safety concerns. Workers who had taken responsible action to defend safety were treated like naughty schoolkids, as LUL trampled over its own policy and our legal rights.

Most workers felt they had little choice but to work normally, albeit under protest. Some stood their ground and lost a day's pay: but in small numbers, and without the strong union leadership we needed, they could not keep this up for the full eight days of the strike. The refusal to work was over.

Bob Crow had advocated balloting for strike action on this issue. But activists had told him that we did not need to go through the long process of a strike ballot and lose pay. Instead, we needed him to lead an organised refusal to work. In the end, the union did neither. Another opportunity to revive our campaign had been lost.

Postscript: The FBU strike would eventually end with a settlement that fell well short of the pay claim, and came with various attacks on service standards and working practices under the guise of 'modernisation'. Some firefighters recognised that they would have been stronger with rank-and-file organistion, and in 2004, set up 'Grassroots FBU'. In February 2004, LUL refunded the Tube workers' docked pay as part of an Employment Tribunal settlement.


Nearly five years on, PPP had still not happened, so it was still possible to stop it. ASLEF had officially given up. TSSA had never fought. But RMT still said it opposed PPP, and its rank-and-file members wanted the fight to continue. Had it done so, members of the other unions might have joined in, and we might have won. We will never know. But we can know for certain that when the union stopped fighting, we were doomed to lose.

28 November 2002 - RMT's London Transport Regional Council passes a resolution to relaunch anti-PPP fight

RMT's London Transport Region unanimously agreed that the union should relaunch its fight, including 'to call further strike action before the contractual handover to the infracos takes place'. Various branches passed similar resolutions.

4 December 2002 - Transport Secretary Alistair Darling promises the consortia nearly £2bn if PPP collapses

But RMT head office had resigned itself to defeat. In late December, it sent out an official circular accepting that PPP would go ahead, even whilst the Regional Council and branches were saying that there was still a chance to stop it.

20 December 2002 - RMT official circular accepts defeat over PPP

RMT's Executive did not even discuss the Regional Council's resolution, and while it waited in the in-tray, the first infraco - JNP - went private.

31 December 2002 - TubeLines and government sign deal to transfer JNP Infraco

No-one in the union's leadership had the courage or decency to argue against renewing strike action. Instead, they had used their bureaucratic power to ignore it.

25 January 2003 - Chancery Lane derailment

Then, on a February Saturday afternoon, a Tube train derailed at Chancery Lane station, injuring 32 passengers. The crash was caused by loose bolts, a problem which the Infraco was already aware of. Everyone knew that the crash was linked to Shadow Running, that it was proof that PPP was a danger to life.

At the very least, the government should have postponed PPP pending an investigation. But it did not. As a Workers' Liberty leaflet said at the time: "Only a government that does not care if people die will let [PPP] go ahead."

Although Chancery Lane was a tragedy, it was also an opportunity. In the wake of the crash, the unions could have revived both the fight against PPP and the demand to close the Tube during FBU strikes. But they did not.

8 April 2003 - PPP completed, as BCV and SSL transfer to Metronet

On 16 April, a week after PPP was implemented, RMT's General Grades Committee passed a resolution stating the union's commitment to fighting for the return of the whole of London Underground to public ownership and control. On one level, this was welcome. But it came at the end of a six-month period in which the GGC did nothing, so really it was an exercise in face-saving bluster.

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