Strikers defy injunction
Last Monday's strike of tubeworkers all but paralysed the London underground network, leading to the cancellation of around 92% of scheduled trains. The management of London Underground Ltd had expected to be able to run a reasonable service after obtaining an injunction in the High Court declaring the strike ballot by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union "invalid", despite the 90% RMT vote in favour of action. LUL stated it had not received enough information relating to the numbers involved in each workplace, as per its entitlement under Thatcher's anti-union legislation, now wielded by New Labour. The strike called by the other main rail union, Aslef, most of whose members are drivers, was allowed to proceed.
Last Monday's strike of tubeworkers all but paralysed the London underground network, leading to the cancellation of around 92% of scheduled trains.
The management of London Underground Ltd had expected to be able to run a reasonable service after obtaining an injunction in the High Court declaring the strike ballot by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union "invalid", despite the 90% RMT vote in favour of action. LUL stated it had not received enough information relating to the numbers involved in each workplace, as per its entitlement under Thatcher's anti-union legislation, now wielded by New Labour. The strike called by the other main rail union, Aslef, most of whose members are drivers, was allowed to proceed.
However, in an excellent tactical move to bypass the ban, hundreds of RMT workers, including a large majority of drivers, took out temporary Aslef membership so as to be able to legally join the action. This tactic took both the bosses and the union bureaucrats by surprise and did not meet with the approval of either. The union tops have consistently resisted all moves to merge into a single force, being more concerned to protect their 'own' territory. But it certainly points the way for tube and indeed all rail workers - why not join together on a permanent basis? Tube militants, many of them supporters of the Socialist Alliance, are to be congratulated for organising the mass sign-up.
The RMT grassroots action took place in defiance of the leadership. General secretary Jimmy Knapp sent out a personal letter to all his tube members instructing them to report to work. No doubt it will be argued by some that he had no choice if he was to comply with the injunction. Yet the letter did not even mention the Aslef strike, let alone advise the RMT membership how to behave.
Thankfully though, the rank and file had other ideas. And Knapp's number two, assistant general secretary Bob Crow, also rebelled, joining Bobby Law, London regional organiser, and executive member John Leach, amongst many others, on the picket line. Comrade Leach had openly called for defiance of the High Court ruling at a rally in support of Hackney council workers on January 31.
A furious London Underground management is now threatening further legal moves against the union for breaching the injunction, naming all three, and accusing them of "inciting" RMT members to strike. Other workers not employed by LUL also risked the wrath of the law when they engaged in 'illegal secondary action' by refusing to cross strikers' picket lines.
One person who did not show up on the picket line, despite his previous commitment given to hundreds of tubeworkers at their rally last month, was of course Ken Livingstone, mayor of London. The union bureaucrats diplomatically announced that they had asked him not to come, as he would "detract attention" from their campaign. How do they work that one out?
In fact Livingstone's cynical 'support' for tubeworkers has now been exposed for what it is in their eyes: he had been using them as pawns in his power battle for control of the underground with Blair and his deputy prime minister John Prescott. Just two days before the strike Livingstone was celebrating a retreat by the government over plans to implement its public-private partnership - the real target of the unions' action.
Not that PPP was to be abandoned. On the contrary, it was to be 'modified' in line with the wishes of the mayor's commissioner for transport, Bob Kiley. Whereas originally the running of the tube itself was to have been handed over to Livingstone's team, while the tracks, tunnels and signalling would have been placed in the hands of private consortia, now there is to be a "unified management". It seems that former CIA man Kiley, renowned for his tough anti-union stance when he ran New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is to have a large say in which companies are to receive the lucrative contracts. The firms concerned must now reapply for a third time.
But all this is a far cry from Livingstone's pledge during his mayoral campaign to oppose PPP lock, stock and barrel. For him it was to be a New York-style bonds issue or nothing. However, according to an "insider", the "key point" for Kiley was that "the manager of the railway has to have control. Whether you have PPP or municipal bonds is wrapped up in it, but is a secondary issue" (The Daily Telegraph February 1).
Speaking on Carlton TV's Ask Ken programme, Livingstone himself confirmed this remarkable and unprincipled about-turn: "I don't mind whether it's bonds or PPP from the companies," he said - the main thing now was that there should be adequate funding, with overall management in the hands of the mayor's office (February 6).
During the election campaign it was safety that was Livingstone's "key point". He warned that a partially privatised London Underground would result in the shambles that followed the privatisation of British Rail and condemned the proposal to bring in Railtrack, notorious for overseeing a series of rail tragedies. Railtrack was of course forced out of the running for the underground contracts by Prescott as a result. But PPP, along with the division of functions and the consequent threat to safety, is to remain - albeit under "unified management".
Apart from safety, tubeworkers are rightly concerned about job security (these were the two issues cited in the strike ballot). After all, Blair and Prescott are simply continuing the Thatcherite drive for 'efficiency' that private capital brings in its wake, as it clears out all 'unnecessary' labour in its drive for profit. Yet Livingstone pooh-poohed the notion of job security in Ask Ken - restricting his comments on the subject to dismissing the notion that the unions wanted a "job for life".
Livingstone was scathing about the underground's "macho management", claiming that he was about to "sack" just about the entire old guard, but said nothing about the future employment of underground workers. And with good reason. As the Telegraph commented, "Tube managers are particularly conscious that any concessions over future job security could frighten away the private sector firms that both the government and Bob Kiley, transport adviser to Ken Livingstone, want to take over the network's neglected infrastructure" (February 6).
In fact Kiley has now brought in fellow union-basher Jay Walder, his colleague in New York's MTA, where he was the chief financial officer. He is to fill the same post in Transport for London, the new company set up to take over responsibility from LUL. In his haste to introduce bonds, 'Red' Ken, the workers' friend, did not hesitate to bring in the US boot boys. Bonds are now dead and gone, but the duo remain ready for action.
Prior to the strike the Evening Standard dubbed it a "mischievous folly by some tubeworkers" (my emphasis, February 2) and called on Livingstone to "behave responsibly" and "urge them to stay at work". Ken obliged, saying that nothing should be done to jeopardise the deal with Prescott.
He, along with LUL and the government, were in for a rude awakening: a militant display by a group of workers who now find themselves well placed strategically. Pickets got a good response from the public, as well as from supply workers who refused to cross their lines. Taking the lead were comrades who are backing the SA. The Campaign Against Tube Privatisation - held up by the Socialist Party in preference to the London Socialist Alliance in last year's assembly election - was invisible as an organisation.
Tubeworkers must keep up the pressure. Janine Booth, leading underground militant and newly selected SA general election candidate for Islington South, reports moves for an immediate "mass meeting for reps and activists of both unions" (UK Left Network, February 5). There must be "no scaling down of the action," she writes. "Build it up instead." Comrade Booth, a member of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, adds: "The dispute, and the fight against PPP, should be carried into the Socialist Alliance general election campaign. Disputes on the mainline ... should be kicked into action to spread the fight across the industry." Quite right. And we must be prepared to defy the anti-union laws, drawing in others in the struggle to defeat them.
The key element in the fight for safety, a decent service and working conditions is workers' own self-activity. There must be no more clinging to the coat tails of Ken Livingstone. But, in order to ensure both safety and jobs, it is not enough to demand the withdrawal of PPP and the renationalisation of the railways. British Rail was hardly a shining beacon of smooth efficiency and safe operation. And the 'publicly owned' underground is run down almost to the point of collapse. Only workers' own control, along with that of passengers - overwhelmingly working class - can ensure our needs are met.
Blair has been forced into a partial retreat on PPP due to the combination of Livingstone's popularity and the tubeworkers' intransigence. He can be defeated altogether if we generalise the struggle and raise it onto a higher, political, plane. His party has left in place the whole gamut of Tory anti-union laws used to shackle workers and prevent them fighting back within the law.
The logic is clear: smash the anti-union laws and break with Blair's party. Build a Socialist Alliance election campaign that challenges not only his project to refashion Britain from above, but the undemocratic constitution of the UK state itself.
Tubeworkers Public meeting:
'Safety not profit - support the tubeworkers' fight'
Thursday February 15, 7pm
Union Chapel (back entrance), Compton Terrace, Islington N1 (Highbury and Islington tube station)
Mick Rix, Aslef; Andy Gilchrist, FBU; Jeremy Corbyn MP, Janine Booth, LSA
Called by FBU Eastern Command Group 3 and Aslef Golders Green/East Finchley
Info: 07939 242 216