Fighting privatisation, defying the law

Submitted by Matthew on 5 February, 2014 - 11:27

Solidarity continues our series of our extracts from Janine Booth’s new book, Plundering London Underground: New Labour, private capital and public transport 1997-2010.


By the beginning of 2001, the government and Tube bosses were pressing ahead with preparations for the Public-Private Partnership, and recently-elected London Mayor Ken Livingstone, elected on a platform of opposing the PPP, was tacking towards compromise. But Tube trade unions, RMT and ASLEF had balloted members for action, and members of both unions voted Yes.

But before the first strike was due to take place, the government announced that the disagreements about PPP were resolved.

Talks that had been “delicate” on 26 January and “on the verge of collapse” on 29 January1 produced a deal on 2 February. The deal was widely presented as a climb-down by [Deputy Prime Minister John] Prescott2, and saw him allow [Transport Commissioner Bob] Kiley access to all documentation and invite him to “take the lead in working up proposals for modifying the PPP”.

Kiley dropped his proposal to raise finance through bonds, saying that it was “not an issue” any more. Livingstone declared that the PPP, a “massively difficult, divisive issue … has been resolved and everyone in London will be delighted … This is an excellent deal, this is what Londoners need.” Livingstone claimed that, “Once the unions have seen the outline of this deal they will realise their worries about safety have been resolved.”

But they were not reassured, and ASLEF confirmed that its strike remained on, and explained that:

“Our dispute is … about the situation as currently exists on the Tube following the separation into different sections of the Underground last year in readiness for PPP. LU has not answered our questions. The strike is still on3.”

RMT’s strike, though, had fallen foul of the law. Legislation by the previous Conservative government had required unions to give employers the names of all members balloted for industrial action. New Labour replaced this with a requirement to provide “such information in the union’s possession as would help the employer to make plans and bring information to the attention of his employees”.

The trade union movement had broadly welcomed this change, believing that it made the process simpler and less invasive of members’ privacy. For this dispute, as for previous disputes, RMT notified London Underground that it was balloting its members “in all categories and workplaces”. London Transport applied to the court for an injunction barring the strike, claiming that the union should have given it more detailed information than this. Justice Gibbs granted the injunction, ruling that RMT should have told LUL the number of its members in each of London Underground’s hundreds of work locations and grades.

[London Underground’s present-day Managing Director] Mike Brown told me that the London Transport Board went to the courts because “we were in an impossible position. If we didn’t try to keep running the place, someone would say to us that all your arguments, anything they ever listened to us about, was all gone, and they would just bring someone else in.” But the union and its members saw the move as an attack on their rights. RMT General Secretary Jimmy Knapp condemned the ruling as having “stood the law on its head and made it harder, not easier to conduct a legal ballot”.4 One RMT activist explained how anger turned into defiance:

“We had a mandate to strike, and for the courts to say that our democratic wishes weren’t valid and were illegal was a total disgrace. So we organised on the ground to keep the action on despite edicts from the courts. I remember standing on the platforms as drivers were coming through saying we were taking strike action alongside ASLEF, we’re not going to be abiding by the courts, and saying the same to station staff. We went round spreading the word.”

Tubeworker asked rhetorically:”What choice have we got? If we buckle under, and call off the strikes because the courts tell us to, then we are effectively conceding that going on strike is illegal.”5 But while the London Transport workers’ representative on RMT’s national Executive, John Leach, voted to press ahead with the action, all but one of the other Executive members voted to call it off. Knapp rushed a letter to members telling them to attend work as normal while ASLEF was striking. Why did Leach want to defy the law?

“Me and Bob Crow and then-President Phil Boston were in the High Court, being told we were going to be in contempt of court: it was a really highly-charged moment. In the evening I was at a mass meeting at the Hackney Empire and was called on stage to give a speech. I knew that regardless of any of these court judgments, the members were just going to walk out. I’ve never known a mood quite like it. So I said that the judge could stuff his injunction. I had to go back in front of that judge the next morning!”

London Transport had not applied for a similar injunction against ASLEF, so ASLEF’s strike went ahead officially. Thousands of RMT members joined it unofficially, with pickets wearing the armbands of both unions. With trade union head offices feeling unable to officially endorse unofficial strikes, bulletins produced by Underground workers took on a new significance. Tubeworker published three issues during the week of the strike. It explained why workers felt confident enough to defy the law: “If we have to go ‘unofficial’, then if thousands stay away from work, there is no way that management can victimise us all — who would run their railway?”6 Mike Brown told me that the company’s management did not even discuss taking disciplinary action against unofficial strikers, and that he and some other directors understood the workers’ actions:

I always knew there was going to be some serious dispute on this issue. I think I knew the strength of feeling about this. It was a genuinely-held, real concern for what the future of the place was going to be.

Nine-tenths of trains were cancelled on the strike day. London Underground management confessed that “The strike has really bitten hard.”7 I wrote at the time that, “All the people who came up to our station said that they fully supported us. Nobody could be found for the TV vox pop interviews or the radio phone-ins to slag off the strike.”8

The Evening Standard admitted that: “Despite the inconvenience, many commuters were broadly supportive of ASLEF’s action”, quoting passenger Toni Adams: “I sympathise with the action if the drivers are thinking of public safety, so I’m prepared to put up with it.”9

Notes

1. Evening Standard, 26 January and 29 January 2001.

2. eg. The Guardian, 3 February 2001; The Times, 3 February 2001; Evening Standard, 2 February 2001.

3. Evening Standard, 2 February 2001.

4. Letter, Jimmy Knapp to RMT members, 9 February 2001.

5. Tubeworker, 3 January 2001.

6. Tubeworker, 31 January 2001, 3 February 2001.

7. Evening Standard, 5 February 2001.

8. Action for Solidarity, 9 February 2001.

9. Evening Standard, 5 February 2001.

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