London Underground: pay fight goes off the rails

Submitted by Janine on 21 October, 2004 - 5:35

RMT's 2004 pay claim for London Underground was for an above-inflation pay rise, a 35-hour week for all staff, and a minimum salary for station assistants of £22,000. The cost of living in London is soaring, and our demand for shorter working hours has been outstanding for years. Management reckoned they "couldn't afford" the claim, but they could afford to discuss it in a posh hotel. And while there is “no money" for us, there is enough money to give Bob Kiley up to £½million per year and a £2m house!

RMT reps made it clear to our executive that we would accept nothing less than the full claim. Not surprisingly, management came no way near offering anything like that, and RMT found itself in dispute with the company again.

Also not surprisingly, TSSA had no intention of fighting for anything, and sadly, ASLEF's leadership was in no mood for a battle either.

Following an 80% ballot vote, RMT called a strike for 6 June, but then called it off. Reps and activists strongly objected to this decision - taken without consulting us - and many people suspected that Ken Livingstone had put the pressure on because that was the date of his re-election as Mayor.

RMT members forced the union to put the action back on, and at the end of June, we held a 24-hour walkout which was supported fantastically by the vast majority of Tube workers. Station and signal & control staff were solid, and on the trains, there was significant solidarity action from ASLEF members alongside their RMT workmates. Tube workers’ solidarity was the perfect response to management’s intransigence and Ken Livingstone’s disgraceful call on us to cross picket lines.

In fact, the action was so effective that LUL/TfL management were round the table again relatively quickly. What followed is what we have become used to - both sides rattling sabres and then climbing down with various excuses.

LUL on the attack

Management were looking to get rid of about 800 ticket office and about 100 station supervisor jobs. They also were looking to have later-running trains on Friday and Saturday nights which would have hit the lowest grade of operational staff (station assistants) the hardest. SAs already work until one in the morning and with later running at the weekends they would be lucky to reach home before three in the morning followed by another long shift on the Sunday.

In the end what transpired was that LUL/TfL withdrew its threat of job cuts - or rather shelved their plans until next year - and offered a two-year pay deal marginally above inflation. They also offered a "promise" to sit down and have "serious" discussions on the 35-hour week to be implemented by next year providing it was self-financing.

Many workers felt that we were left in the dark, as the union was not telling us what was going on in negotiations, and you can never believe the rubbish that comes from management or the Evening Standard. It can feel like the union only contacts you when it wants you to go on strike or accept a deal. Instead, members should be kept informed and involved throughout the dispute.

On the defensive

For many of us on the Tube, the alarm bells were already ringing, since senior reps had been stuck in unfruitful joint working parties on the shorter working week for the previous two years or more. And we have to ask the question: why must the RMT always begin negotiations on management's terms (self-financing and job cuts) rather than on a level playing field? The union can end up going on the defensive and claiming the removal of management attacks as a significant victory without actually gaining anything for the members.

We hate to say we told you so (we really do) but as it turned out, in the first week of October LUL/TfL reneged on their "promise" to work together to achieve the shorter working week and talks have broken down again (shocker). At the same time, management have been giving themselves inflation-busting performance-related pay awards. The RMT executive is up in arms and claiming that the agreement on pay is now null and void in the same month as we've all received our backdated pay rise.

The union Executive should learn this lesson well and remember it. Time and again they have been wrong-footed by LUL/TfL and lost the momentum of a successful day of action. It seems that all it takes for the executive to call off a dispute is for management to make some pie-in-the-sky promises which they have no intention of honouring and for a couple of reps to stand up and say that support for strike action is a slight bit wobbly in their area.

We can be much more optimistic and combative than this. Membership of the RMT is steadily increasing on the Underground on both trains and stations, and as it does, so does our potential for improving our pay and conditions and protecting jobs. Perhaps if we allowed the membership to run our disputes through democratically-elected strike committees, we wouldn't be in this fine mess.

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