Preparing the Tube for Privatisation

Submitted by Janine on 1 August, 2004 - 12:00

From the time Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, the government and its lackeys in London Underground's management launched attack after attack on the Tube and its workers. These attacks helped to prepare London Underground for privatisation.

They also provoked fightbacks from Tube workers and our unions. Some won, some lost, all provided lessons that we could have learned from for our fight against PPP.

The transport strikes of the 70s and 80s were the only force that Thatcher could not stop.

She stockpiled coal and imported it from abroad to break the miners. She let companies move their assets abroad to break the militancy of the car workers. She used unemployment to treat labour as a commodity to be bought and sold in the market place.

The one thing she could not stockpile or move abroad was our transport system.

When London Transport workers took strike action, all London's public transport, buses and Underground, came to a standstill. In pay disputes, the unions tried to tie up the national rail disputes with the London Transport days of action so that the entire country came to a halt.

The bosses could not tolerate this kind of power. They had pushed through laws against secondary action, mass picketing and sympathy action, but still could not break the transport strikes. The main problem they had was that British Rail and London Transport were companies in their own right. The workforce could legally stop trains and buses without falling foul of secondary action laws. An urgent solution was needed and privatisation was its name.

The Transport Act 1982 created the company London Underground Limited. From then on, it was supposed to function as a business. This shifted the ethos from public service provision to balancing the books. From this time onwards, parts of London Underground would be hived off to the private sector. LUL's own in-house works and buildings department had employed 1,500 workers, but by the mid-80s no longer existed. Cleaning and canteen provision went the same way. This set the scene for future privatisation schemes into the 90s: Make Or Buy, Private Finance Initiative and others.


In 1986, the Tories abolished the Greater London Council (GLC) and took control of London Underground into the hands of central government. This was a brutal attack on local democracy and on a GLC which had promised to fight against the Government in defence of London's workers and residents. But the GLC's fight had fallen well short of its promises. It began the abolition of guards, as the Circle line went OPO (one-person operation). As GLC leader, Ken Livingstone had provoked a fight with Tube workers by refusing a 15% pay claim (inflation was then around 12%; the GLC offered 8%.)

The GLC had cut fares on London Transport with the 'Fares Fair' policy in 1981. But when Lord Denning ruled the cheap fares illegal, and there could not have been a clearer issue on which to take on the Tories, the GLC voted to obey the courts and raise the fares again.

LUL became separate from London Buses. By doing this, the Tories stopped bus and Tube workers taking joint action.

Because the leadership of our movement failed to see the imminent danger that privatisation put us in, and failed to mobilise an all-out general strike in support of the miners, our movement was gravely weakened.

When London buses were sold off, bus workers could no longer legally call on their comrades on the Tube to support them. Wages and conditions were decimated in short order. Safety standards dropped dramatically and systematic bullying and intimidation of union activists was widespread.

Bus workers were seriously let down by their own union (T&GWU) leadership. If they had fought - and if the Tube unions' leadership had had the nerve to break the law in their support and organise solidarity action with them - we could have nipped the whole process in the bud.

As it is their slavish acceptance of Thatcher's anti-union laws led to defeat after defeat.


Through the 1980s, LUL extended OPO to more and more lines. Initially, OPO drivers were paid higher rates than drivers on crew-operated lines (those that still had guards). Then, in 1989, LUL equalised their pay. OPO drivers walked out on unofficial strike.

The Summer wildcat strikes by train crew united members of both NUR (RMT's forerunner) and ASLEF. Rank-and-file activists organised mass stay-aways, independently of the official structures of the unions. They had no faith in bureaucratised, out-of-touch union officials who had not organised successful strike action in decades. And they were fantastically effective.

Under the pressure of rank-and-file action, the unions took up the strikes officially. They balloted members across all the grades, including issues other than OPO drivers' wages - the annual pay claim, and a management scheme called Action Stations, which would cut jobs amongst station staff.

Union officials took over negotiations with the company - but the rank-and-file, unwilling to relinquish control of strikes they had themselves initiated, insisted that union officials agreed to nothing without reporting back to and getting the agreement of mass meetings.

The strikes continued to have a massive impact (although TSSA, as usual, scabbed). The army set up car parks in Hyde Park, as London came to a total standstill on strike days. Five strike days coincided with strikes on British Rail against attempts to abolish national pay bargaining; one coincided with a London bus strike.

Faced with this tide of action, LUL began to back down. The company conceded a 8.8% pay rise, and dropped Action Stations. But the pay offer to OPO drivers pay fell well short of their demands. Scandalously, it was accepted by union officials at ACAS without the agreement of a mass meeting. Disgraced by their actions, the NUR Executive representative resigned and ASLEF's retired. After one more wildcat strike by furious rank-and-file drivers, the campaign ended.


The Tube workforce could and had shut down the Underground on a number of occasions bringing chaos to London and costing the city millions. The main union, the NUR, was dominant on the stations and signalling and reasonably strong on the trains.

The TSSA was concentrated in the booking office and management grades. They were famed for their moderation and as they had so many manager members, they never rocked the boat. The problem for management was that the NUR foremen and inspectors held the keys to the stations. The Company Plan was to end that situation.

Station staff had to fight year after year to win paltry pay rises and slight improvements to conditions. There was no sick pay then unless you had been on the company for years. Booking clerks did get sick pay and earned more than station foremen. When the station side settled their dispute on pay, the TSSA just demanded that differentials were maintained. TSSA were living off the back of the NUR even then.

This caused upset among the foremen and the Station Foreman's Action Committee was set up. This was an unofficial body of rank-and-file workers inside the NUR. They held mass meetings and distributed many leaflets calling for more pay and recognition, arguing that as they ran the station, they should be the top earners. The campaign took hold and soon had the ear of the union leadership and the management.

In November 1992, London Underground management announced their Company Plan, calling it a 'new dawn for the heart of London'. The 'new dawn' for Tube workers, though, meant 5,000 job losses and the destruction of working conditions and job security for everyone else.

Management tried to set the workforce against each other by creating winners and losers. Some staff would get a pay rise out of the Company Plan, some conditions would improve. For example, it gave the foremen a £50 per week pay rise and sick pay for all station staff from day one. But it decimated the pay of the booking clerk and got rid of chief clerks. It involved giving up enhanced shift pay and seven banked rest days.

Overall, Company Plan was a devastating attack on the workforce. Obviously, to the thinking person, it was not a good deal. It should have been fought tooth and nail. Many activists went around trying to build support for a strike.


By May 1992, RMT members had voted to strike to stop Company Plan. But the union leadership decided not to go ahead with a strike, preferring to rely on talks with management, even though it was obvious to activists that management was not negotiating seriously. The General Election was approaching, John Prescott had promised to scrap PPP, and the union gambled on Labour winning (and Prescott keeping his promise). The gamble failed: the Tories won.

TSSA members voted by 88% to reject the Plan, and by 78% to strike against it. Even though TSSA would not go on strike, this was a measure of the strength of feeling against Company Plan.

ASLEF left it very late. As the date for implementation of Company Plan - 7 December 1992 - approached, the Society wasted precious time by holding a referendum of members on whether they agreed with Company Plan before going on to a strike vote. 75% of a massive 65% turnout voted to reject it, and finally, the strike ballot started. RMT, which had won a Yes vote in a second strike ballot, called an all-out strike from 24 November. It made little sense to go ahead without ASLEF, who were still balloting, but rather than postpone the action, the RMT Executive called it off.

Tube workers had lost. We went down to defeat without a fight - the worst sort of defeat. Once again, we had lost due to our division into different unions, and the timidity of our union's leaders. This fatal error in allowing management to divide our workforce led to the situation we are in today.

LUL management forced Tube staff to sign new contracts. It was a humiliating experience, which left many people bitter against the unions as well as management. It is still common today for colleagues to tell you that they lost faith in the unions over the Company Plan.

Company Plan mixed up the workforce. Station foremen now found themselves in booking offices and some senior booking clerks found themselves working as Station Supervisors. The TSSA now had a foothold on the stations. Before Company Plan, we could be sure that the stations would be shut on strike days. With the introduction of TSSA members onto the stations, that changed.

Management strove to divide the workforce. They set RMT against TSSA and ASLEF against RMT. By means of this division, they started to claw back some of our hard-earned rights and brought in new working practices and more 'flexible working'. We were still able to cause chaos if we went on strike, but they could run a token service.

The next step for management was to confuse the new recruits at the training school, warning them of militant unions and telling them what a benevolent employer they are. Actively discouraging new staff from joining a union, but if they must, join the TSSA. The divide on the stations between the RMT and the TSSA was wider than it was with management. Hatred was building that only furthered management's cause. On the train side, ASLEF's leadership disgracefully ordered their members to cross RMT picket lines, causing bitter enmity between the unions.

Instead of patiently explaining the reasons for the problems that the workforce found themselves in, the leadership of the three unions on the Underground chose to blame each other. The politicising of the workforce was forgotten in a rush to score points and gain members. Many good comrades were lost along the way, sick of fighting each other instead of the real enemy.

But the unions were far from dead. RMT proved this in 1993, when Central Line traincrew won the reinstatement of two colleagues - Ray Stelzner and Pat Sikorski - sacked by LUL. It was an excellent campaign, with a strong presence in the depots, lots of publicity, and a convincing strike ballot.


In 1994, John Major appointed Peter Ford as LT Chair. Ford had "a reputation as a union-busting, strike-breaking director of the shipping company P&O" (The Independent, on the occasion of Ford's sacking, 22/4/99).

In the mid-90s, the 'Make Or Buy' policy saw more work contracted out to the private sector. The biggest of these was the contract to build new trains for the Northern Line, whose ancient rolling stock had earned it the label 'misery line'. The contract went to Alstom, who eventually delivered them over a year late.

Seeboard Powerlink took over the supply of power to the Tube, and attacked its workers' pensions.
John Major lauded the Jubilee Line Extenstion as "a very remarkable partnership between the public and private sectors and a prototype for future partnerships". It was originally scheduled to open in March 1998, but eventually opened only just in time for the Millennium celebrations and was then beset by signal failures and other technical problems. Its initial cost of £1.9b increased to over £3b, and the official report afterwards condemned both LUL and the private companies. A prototype indeed.


By the time Labour won the 1997 General Election, the Tube was in a bad way. The number of staff employed by LUL had fallen from 21,600 in 1985 to around 16,000. Underfunding had left the Underground with outdated equipment and infrastructure, and desperately in need of upgrades and new lines. By 1997, there was a £1.2b backlog in essential investments.

In their last months of office, the Tories cut LUL's funding further still. The government grant was cut by £700m over the next three years; LUL's core grant had been slashed to £358m from a peak of £680m.

Labour won the General Election by a landslide, helped by popular hatred of the Tories and their policies of devastating public services to feather the nests of the rich. The swing to Labour was even higher than average in London, which everyone attributed to the unpopularity of the Tories' pledge to fully privatise the Tube.

Labour could have reversed the Tories' funding cuts, and brought the privatised functions back into the public LUL. But it did not, as Chancellor Gordon Brown had pledged the party to adhere to Tory spending limits for two years after winning the election. Going further still, the Labour government attempted to sell the Railway Engineering Works at Acton to Adtranz, but was pushed back by an RMT campaign. The government backed down, only to include Acton Works in PPP. From the moment they were elected, Blair, Brown and Prescott betrayed the working-class people who had voted for them.

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