Monday, February 21, 2011

Article for Labour Briefing on London Transport workers' struggles

I have written this short article for Labour Briefing:

On 6 February, despite strong opposition from trade unions and passengers, London Underground completed its cut of 800 jobs from its stations. It slashed ticket office opening hours and removed staff from around the stations, leaving safety and security compromised and passengers without the help they need. Private-sector-run upgrades are seeing repeated failures, and maintenance regimes are being slashed.

RMT and TSSA fought the job cuts, taking four separate days’ strike action between September and November. The two unions are now engaged in a review of the job cuts with LU management which may yet restore some of the cut jobs.

During the dispute, LU took hostages, sacking three RMT representatives in an attempt to weaken the union. LU has since reinstated stations rep Peter Hartshorn on appeal, as his Piccadilly line workmates prepared for strike action. But train driver RMT reps Eamonn Lynch and Arwyn Thomas remain sacked. Both have won ’interim relief’, as Employment Tribunal judges ruled that LU had sacked them unfairly due to their trade union activities. It is very rare for sacked union reps to win interim relief; the fact that Eamonn and Arwyn did so shows beyond doubt that their sackings were an anti-union act.

Eamonn’s and Arwyn’s workmates on the Bakerloo and Northern lines have taken two days’ strike action to demand their reinstatement. RMT is now preparing to escalate the dispute by balloting all our driver members for strikes. Rank-and-file reps and members understand that the sackings are not merely injustices against two members, but an attack on the union and on trade unionism in general.

Workers on the Docklands Light Railway voted in January by a big majority for strike action over several issues, including cuts in pension rights, imposed restructuring, and the sacking of two workmates. But the employer, Serco Docklands, ran to the High Court, which duly obliged them with an injunction against the strike. RMT had not broken any existing anti-union law, so the judge invented a new one and declared the union to have broken that!

The injunction extends Britain’s already highly-repressive anti-union legislation, by declaring that a union must give a far more detailed explanation of how it compiled the information it has to provide to the employer in its notices of ballots and industrial action. So RMT has appealed against the injunction; as I write, the appeal has been heard, but judgment may not be given until March.

Once again, democratic, effective trade union action has been thwarted by anti-democratic laws and judges, bent on serving the employers. It is telling indeed that when a court rules a strike unlawful on a flimsy pretext, the union has to obey and call off the strike; but when a court rules a sacking unlawful on good grounds, the employer does not have to obey and reinstate the sacked worker! David Cameron claims that Britain’s employment law is weighed too heavily in favour of the employer, but these latest cases prove the opposite.

It is easy enough to denounce anti-union laws and judges; it is now high time for a renewed campaign to defeat them. Our unions must mobilise members to fight for trade union rights, and those who claim to represent the labour movement in politics must make a stand against the anti-union laws, rather than staying away when they have a chance to do so, as when John McDonnell’s Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill was debated in Parliament.

Follow RMT in the London Transport region:
Twitter: @RMTLondon

By Janine Booth, London Transport region representative, RMT Council of Executives

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