2014 05 – The London Underground Dispute

Some Comments On The London Underground Dispute

by Chris Smith

In November of last year London Underground (LU) announced its plans for the future of the Underground. Titled ‘Fit for the Future—Stations,’ the proposals included a restructuring of grades for staff and the closure of every ticket office on the underground network. 900 positions will be lost forever but there will be no compulsory redundancies. The press at the time mainly concentrated on the news of the partial 24 hour running of the network at weekends.

All ticket office staff–Station Assistant Multi Functional (SAMF), will be downgraded to Station Assistants with a loss in salary of nearly £6,000 a year. For some grades the restructuring may result in a loss of as much as £11,000 per year. All supervisors for instance will have to reapply for the new grade of customer service manager, and those who don’t qualify will be downgraded. It is possible that some SAMF staff may apply for a higher grade and get this, but in the main most SAMF will be downgraded. LU claim that the plans are about modernising the network. But the unions argue, correctly in my opinion, that the modernisation aspects of the plans can be introduced within the current structure of the grades. In reality, the plans are about cost cutting.

Subsequent to the ‘Fit for the Future’ announcements by LU, the Rail, Marine Transport (RMT) and Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) unions sought talks regarding these plans. They found however that management only wanted to talk about how to implement their plans. They did not and would not negotiate on the ‘Fit for the Future’ plans, even though this is how it should have been done, first through the company council. Indeed the voluntary severance package which they put forward was of itself a breach of procedure as it was presented as a fait accompli to staff. Given the complete intransigence of management, both the RMT and TSSA ran ballots which overwhelmingly backed industrial action, including strike action.

We were subject to the usual rubbish by Boris Johnson and other Tories, complaining that only a minority of tube workers voted for strike action. Nevertheless, the ballot returned an overwhelming yes vote. Johnson and other right wing Tories have been arguing for some time that strike action should only take place if more than 50% of members eligible to vote, do so. Not 50% of those who actually vote. This is absurd. More than 50% of the electorate did not vote in the election that put Boris Johnson in office as London Mayor. And I suspect this applies to a number of MPs. Furthermore, Police Commissioners, which this government introduced, were elected into office by ballots which in places barely reached double figures.

It is also worth noting that it was the Tories who abolished workplace ballots which had very high turnouts and replaced them with postal ballots. Johnson incidentally, got into office the first time by promising no ticket office closures. He did not mention in his re-election campaign that he had changed his policy. So I think it is reasonable to say that his original promise stood at the time of his re-election, a promise he has now broken. Before the strikes began both the RMT and TSSA attended Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service (ACAS) meetings to try to resolve the dispute. Mike Brown, LU’s Chief Executive Officer, at one stage alleged on the BBC that the RMT had not turned up for a meeting, which was news to the RMT as it had attended all ACAS meetings.

A very successful two day strike was mounted. Probably the most surprising thing about the strike was the level of public support. Strikes are not popular, not even with staff who go on strike and end up losing pay. However all staff reported a positive response from members of the public; a telling sign of the hostility of the public to the plans for ticket office closures. LU passengers have told staff to “stand firm” and if necessary go back on strike. Hostility that is usually directed at the unions was directed towards LU’s management and Boris Johnson. The message from the public at ticket offices is clear: please defeat these crazy proposals and keep our ticket offices open. The preceding is the polite version of customer responses.

LU management have been claiming that ticket office use has been declining and that people do not want them anymore. Actually most people do want ticket offices to remain open. While it is true that ticket offices are not as busy as they used to be, they are still used by a lot of people and their closure is not in the best interests of LU or its customers.

At this point perhaps a brief word is called for on LU’s use of statistics. For example, LU’s claim that only 3% of journeys begin at a ticket office. Even if one accepts this figure, it needs further explanation. 3% of journeys may begin at a ticket office, but something like over 20% of ticket sales take place at a ticket office. Once a ticket has been purchased, whether it is a one day, one week, or one year, travel card, of course the rest of the journeys do not begin at a ticket office.

After the first set of two day strikes and just before the second of the two day strikes, an agreement was reached between RMT/TSSA and LU at ACAS. Both unions temporarily called off their industrial actions. The agreement reached said briefly: 1) LU would suspend its ‘Fit for the Future—Stations’ plans, and would enter into meaningful and detailed discussions with the unions. 2) All voluntary severance applications would be put on hold and no new applications would be sought. 3) A station by station review would take place, which could result in some ticket offices remaining open.

Subsequent feedback from the unions does not seem positive and I doubt if a station by station review can be undertaken in seven weeks.

Despite LU’s claim that this is about modernising the network and is what customers want, in reality their plans are aimed at cutting costs. The RMT’s response to LU is that it should bring back all maintenance work in house. RMT also wants LU to open up its books so that the unions can make counter proposals. This is akin to workers’ control, but it’s probably not what RMT have in mind. Interestingly, although their focus is on cost cutting, one aspect of LU’s plans that have not been given much public airing is the proposal to increase the number of Group Station Managers, to be called Area Managers, by 400%! Yes, that’s right: 400%! Close ticket offices, reduce frontline staff, but massively increase the number of senior managers. Just what the customer ordered!

Since the above was written the meetings at ACAS have revealed that the fears of staff and their Union representatives have been realised. LU say they have listened—they haven’t—and say that no one will now have to apply for their jobs. However, the station by station review of ticket office closures have seen only 5 ticket offices reviewed. Add to this LU’s Chief Executive Phil Hufton’s stated aim that all ticket offices will close, then the only reasonable conclusion that anyone can come to is that the whole review procedure is a sham.

The RMT issued the following statement in response to these “talks”: 1) LU promised the unions—and Londoners— a “station by station review,” and that some ticket offices could stay open. LU broke that promise—there has been no station by station review. (5 ticket offices is not a station by station review. CS.). 2) LU intends to cut 1793 frontline posts and create 900 new managers— from 228 to 1068—one manager to every four staff! (at a cost of £70,000 per manager. CS.). 3) Pay for top managers up; pay for operational staff down.

In response to the RMT’s call for strike action Boris Johnson had this to say: “No one will be forced out of a job, no one will lose pay. Fewer than 3% of journeys start at a ticket office.” (London Evening Standard. 25/4/14). It seems that the Mayor of London is unaware of what his management team under the “Fit for the Future” proposals are actually trying to implement. This is the man in charge of London’s transport and he wants to be Prime Minister! Mr Johnson, try and find out what you are actually supporting.

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