Tube strike prompts calls for tougher strike laws

In early February 2014, London Underground train services in the UK capital were disrupted by a 48-hour strike organised by transport unions RMT and TSSA. Staff were protesting at management plans to close 278 ticket offices, with the loss of 953 jobs. An interim agreement between Transport for London managers and the unions averted a second planned 48-hour stoppage. Politicians from the Conservative Party, the largest group in the ruling coalition government, have called for tougher strike laws.

Background

On 4–6 February 2014, a 48-hour strike was held by London Underground staff belonging to the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), causing extensive travel disruption for people living and working in London.

The two unions organised the stoppage over management restructuring plans for London’s underground train services, including the closure of 278 ticket offices and the loss of 953 jobs. The staffing of ticket offices has been a long-running issue between London Underground’s management and the unions, and it has triggered previous disputes (UK1012019I). The unions argued that the latest plans would result in a poorer service. An increased number of ‘ghost stations’ with minimal staff on duty would also have safety implications for passengers.

London Underground’s management, part of Transport for London (TfL), insisted that the closures could be achieved without the need for compulsory redundancies. It guaranteed that a job would be available for any member of staff wishing to remain at London Underground who was ‘willing to be flexible’. The remaining station staff would in future be less remote and would be available in ticket halls and on platforms to provide a better face-to-face service for passengers.

Talks at Acas

Talks between TfL and the unions at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) ahead of the first planned strike failed to produce a solution. A second 48-hour strike, which was due to start on the evening of 11 February, was successfully averted following further talks that began at Acas on 7 February and continued on 10 and 11 February. When talks adjourned, London Underground’s management wrote to the unions with proposals to resolve the dispute. The unions suspended the second 48-hour strike and instructed their members to go to work as usual.

Terms of the agreement

London Underground’s management undertook not to make the planned redundancies until it had conducted ‘further meaningful and detailed discussions’ with the unions at company council level. This period of consultation was due to finish during the week ending 4 April 2014. During this period all applications for voluntary redundancy received were to be put on hold and no new applications would be invited.

The unions agreed to enter into detailed discussion of these proposals and management acknowledged that, as a result, the proposals may be subject to change.

The discussions would include a station-by-station review, including the proposed ticket office closures, which could result in some ticket offices remaining open, and would examine the proposed job roles at each station and the selection methods for redundancies.

The RMT and TSSA have withdrawn all threats of industrial action, and all parties committed to returning to Acas to report on progress during the week ending 4 April 2014.

Reaction from the parties

The Managing Director of London Underground, Mike Brown, said:

We welcome the suspension of the RMT and TSSA strike action. We have always said that we want the unions to engage fully with us, to help shape our proposals for the future of the Tube.

The late RMT General Secretary, Bob Crow, commented:

We now have a golden opportunity to look again in detail at all of the concerns we have raised about the impact of the cuts on our members and the services that they provide to Londoners. That is exactly what we have been calling for throughout this dispute.

In a message to its members, the TSSA said:

This outcome now gives us a framework to discuss the proposals that the company previously failed to offer. We remain firmly against the cuts agenda across stations and we remain firmly committed to resist them.

Political repercussions

The dispute prompted politicians from the Conservative Party, the largest group in the ruling coalition government, to call for tougher laws to restrict strikes. The Mayor of London, Conservative Boris Johnson, said that proposals to limit the right to strike should be included in the party’s manifesto for the 2015 general election.

It was reported that Prime Minister David Cameron’s office was considering options including:

  • making the lawfulness of strikes dependent on the support of an absolute majority of union members eligible to vote in a ballot, rather than a simple majority of those who actually vote;
  • designating London’s underground transport network an ‘essential service’, and requiring London Underground workers to provide a minimum level of service.

An online article by The Guardian newspaper quoted a Downing Street source as saying:

It’s right that we look at issues like ballot thresholds and minimum service agreements in order to protect passengers on vital public transport networks. We will consider these and other reforms for our manifesto.

Mark Hall, IRRU, Warwick Business School

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