London Underground RMT: faced with no choice but to strike

by an RMT tube driver

I am a worker on the railway who drives a train in London. I work in the east end of London and am a third-generation Underground worker. I am a member of the RMT rail union. As a Londoner I am proud of my city, and as a commuter I want to feel safe. I am a faithful servant of London Underground and I do not want to have to go on strike!

During the Covid pandemic, the world held its breath when key workers kept society running. Rail workers on the front line died. We were afforded the status of ‘key workers’. We were deemed indispensable and even afforded hero-like status. We are not heroes but members of the working class, who are highly trained. We keep London moving and contribute to the great wealth generated in London. Were it not for our efforts, and the efforts of other workers, the business of our city would cease.

RMT strikers at Edmonton Green
RMT strike Edmonton Green.
Photo: Ian Pattison

Passengers on the London Underground deserve the highest levels of safety, and workers deserve a decent wage and pension, which is in fact deferred wages after the worker finishes work. A working life that is dedicated in large part to unsocial hours, which has been proven to shorten life expectancy.

As a reward, rail workers have been awarded a series of attacks on our terms and conditions. These attacks have taken place throughout our industry, including on London Underground.

The station grades have seen an initial 600 job cuts. The travelling public was told that the closure of ticket offices would result in more visible and accessible staff, but these staffing numbers have now been slashed.

Far from the ‘king’s ransom’ the bosses report our pension to be, at present it will enable workers to retire without being in dire straits. Now workers with 20 years’ service risk seeing the rug being pulled from under their feet, potentially contributing more for much less upon retirement.

Workers who previously crossed picket lines have had enough of the attacks on pensions and terms and conditions. At the time of writing, Aslef drivers’ union has called strike action on 15 March as well.

We have no option but to strike. See you on the picket line!

The cuts to jobs on London Underground are part of what has been referred to as a ‘managed decline’. The network is at risk of descending into a feeling of danger with every trip on the tube.

If you are disabled by barriers in society there will be less staff to assist, with the only comfort being a ‘help point’ with a member of staff in a distant location. Less staff available to escort visually-impaired persons to the platform. Less staff to assist with ramps onto trains for people with wheelchairs.

Passengers who have difficulty purchasing a ticket will find no ticket office and less staff to help. If you do not have an Oyster or bank card you are out of luck.

The job cuts have meant a rise in lone working. Staff now cover two or more stations. As well as a depletion of customer care, there is a potentially disastrous consequence on operational matters. Welfare checks on drivers following a safety incident will be delayed. Drivers not seeing the platform cameras and station staff being unavailable has been an issue.

This environment is less safe for staff. Whereas staff used to be paid extra to open and close more than one station in the dead of night, this practice is now seen as a part of the working day, with financial penalties for not complying with this potentially hazardous instruction.

One female colleague was reportedly told that she was exaggerating after she was cat-called by a group of men at 2.30am. It is much harder to retreat to a place of safety when you are the only person on the station and are outnumbered at this late hour.

These station job cuts will impact train drivers. Station staff were previously tasked with ensuring all passengers exited the train, before the train went into a siding or depot. Instead, a practice of ‘flash and dash’ has been implemented by the bosses, whereby drivers are to flash the lights multiple times and tell passengers via the Public Address system that they must all change. If passengers do not hear or see this, or are too slow to exit the train, then they face being carried into a siding or depot.

This practice is not new and was abandoned previously after a fatality. We now find the penny-pinchers risking the safety of the public and staff again. I for one do not wish to be in a siding with an irate member of the public!

What are we to do, faced with these huge cuts and attacks on our pensions?

We could roll over and accept the unilateral imposition to our terms and conditions. However, we in the RMT have been on strike at least six times in the last year. 2022 saw a year of activity on the picket lines, with Socialist Party members in attendance, supporting the lines, selling papers, and discussing well-received ideas.

Someone recently approached me and said that it was “wonderful” that Aslef and the RMT were striking at the same time on 15 March. I responded that we as workers do not want to strike. We do not wish to breach our contracts of employment and lose money. This is not West Ham vs Millwall, this is workers vs Tories. We are facing an attack on the working class, with the Tories attempting to normalise poverty.

Socialist Party members in the RMT say

The 15 March strike, coordinated with other unions, is an important step in our fight against massive cuts demanded by a Tory government and passed on by a Labour London mayor.

We must also discuss how we now escalate our fight. RMT has succeeded in maintaining support for our action across all functions. This must continue. But it is now clearer than ever that pension attacks remain on the agenda. We now have massive cuts being proposed by management on trains, and organisational changes being proposed that include the prospect of members being redeployed into lower-paid jobs with only short-term protection of earnings.

We have the unity of our members on London Underground. Unity with other workers within the rail sector and elsewhere will only strengthen us.

An RMT reps meeting has agreed to identify further strike dates and speak to other unions.