London Underground strikes set to escalate

London Underground workers went on their fourth 24-hour strike last autumn, in late November, in protest at planned job cuts affecting ticket office staff. Talks to settle the dispute have proved unsuccessful. The four strikes were announced by unions in August 2010 after management announced plans to reduce ticket office opening hours and cut 800 jobs. An indefinite overtime ban also began on 6 September. The unions are planning to escalate the stoppages in early 2011.

Background to the dispute

In August 2010, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) announced a series of four 24-hour stoppages by London Underground staff for the autumn of 2010. The move followed strike ballots held by the two unions over plans by London Underground management to reduce ticket office opening hours and cut the jobs of 800 ticket office staff at tube stations.

London Underground workers, including tube drivers, signallers and station, maintenance and engineering staff, staged the strikes on 6–7 September, 3–4 October, 2–3 November and 28–29 November. An indefinite overtime ban also started on 6 September.

Several, unsuccessful, talks between the parties have been held with the involvement of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas). Before the fourth 24-hour stoppage, the RMT suggested that a specific volume of ticket sales, which would guarantee the retention of a ticket office, should be the subject of binding arbitration. The trade unions also offered to suspend industrial action if management would suspend the implementation of the changes, due to take effect in February 2011. However, London Underground’s counter-offer of a six-week review of the safety implications of its proposed changes proved unacceptable to the unions. The two unions are planning to escalate the stoppages in early 2011.

London Underground management argues that the ticket office jobs are no longer required as the widespread use of electronic cards has reduced demand for paper tickets. Howard Collins, London Underground’s Chief Operating Officer, said the cuts were needed because some ticket offices sold fewer than 10 tickets an hour. London Underground insisted that there would be no compulsory redundancies and that stations would continue to be staffed at all times while trains are operating.

RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said the cuts were unacceptable and would leave stations and platforms ‘dangerously understaffed’, affecting safety and standards of service for passengers. TSSA General Secretary Gerry Doherty said: ‘We will defend a vital public service on which millions of people depend every day of their working lives.’

The unions and some London Labour MPs also claim that London Mayor Boris Johnson has broken the election campaign pledge he made in 2008 to defend local ticket offices. Mr Crow stated: ‘All we have been asking is that the London Mayor sticks to the pledge he made during his election campaign, when he too recognised that people wanted to see stations staffed properly. The message is simple: suspend these cuts and we will suspend our action.’

Mr Johnson responded: ‘Londoners have shown that they will not be deterred from their daily business by these pointless strikes. I hope the RMT and TSSA leaderships will face facts and see that their action achieves nothing aside from depriving their members of another day’s pay.’

Social partner reaction

The latest strike on the London Underground was the subject of comment from both the main social partner organisations – the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Katja Hall, the CBI’s Director of Employment Policy, said (UK1010029I):

It is disappointing that this dispute could not be resolved at Acas, which means that Londoners will suffer travel disruption for the fourth time in as many months. This is a big disruption caused by a small union minority. As the law stands, strikes are often decided by a tiny turnout of the workforce. In this case, just 33% of balloted members supported the strike – only 17% of the total London Underground workforce. The CBI is calling for changes to the law to ensure that strikes can go ahead only if 40% of those balloted, as well as a simple majority of those voting, support the action.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:

It should be remembered that tube staff are not striking over pay and conditions but over ticket office closures and the impact of cuts on passengers. They are sacrificing another day’s pay in the interests of passenger safety. The unions have now taken a bold initiative in proposing independent binding arbitration on the issue at the heart of this dispute – staffing at ticket offices. The ball is now firmly in the Mayor’s court, and Londoners will be hoping that he accepts the unions’ fair and reasonable proposal to bring this dispute to an end.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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