‘London Underground’ | Photo: @Doug88888 - Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article ‘London Underground’ | Photo: @Doug88888 - Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

Transport for London cuts represent a general assault on all transport workers and should be met with resistance from all transport unions, argues Unjum Mirza

In theatrical magic, the illusionist deceives the audience by drawing attention to one thing to distract it from another. Last week, we witnessed such a case of misdirection. The media attention, following the ‘conditions-led’ funding agreement reached between the Department for Transport (DfT) and Transport for London (TfL) on 1 June 2021, has been dominated by one section (paras 11 – 13) of Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps’ 24-page letter to Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan headed ‘Driverless trains’.

Having alerted the reader to the illusionist’s deception, I will not dwell upon this issue. It suffices to say three things:

Firstly, for those who wish to better understand the confusion and controversy surrounding ‘Driverless Trains’, The Political Myth of the Driverless Tube Train, written by London Reconnections Editor, John Bull, is an excellent and informative read.

Secondly, in sum, ‘driverless trains’ really are a fantasy – certainly in the short-to-medium term. Shapps states in his letter:

“TfL will make sufficient progress towards the conversion of at least one Underground line to Grade-of-Automation 3 (driverless, but with an on-board attendant, as on the Docklands Light Railway)… To achieve this DfT and TfL will produce a Full Business Case for the Waterloo & City Line within 12 months and for the Piccadilly Line within 18 months.”

Well, a business case was carried out in August last year and it found:

“Whilst some operational savings are achievable, the overall the case is not financially positive given the high capital costs… Whilst there are marginal positive benefit : cost ratios, the financial payback is negative.”

Any further business case presented for ‘driverless trains’ on the Piccadilly Line will note (amid a vast array of problems) the bleeding obvious: the signalling needs to be updated first.

Thirdly, the real purpose of the ‘driverless trains’ hullabaloo is to create a hostile environment against train drivers in particular but tube workers more generally, preceding the inevitable industrial conflict to come. The Prime Minister holds a particular pathological obsession on the matter and will no doubt take the lead on this front, stating recently: “let’s not be the prisoners of the unions any more, let’s go to driverless trains.”

What’s going on?

So what’s really going on? In sum, as elsewhere, we – the TfL/LU workforce and the public – are being made to pay for the Covid crisis.

Shapps’ ‘conditions-led’ agreement with TfL is the third short-term deal that will run for six months until 11 December 2021. The previous bailouts were agreed in April and October 2020 as TfL’s revenue collapsed in line with the dramatic fall in passenger numbers as a result of the pandemic.

Then, the former Transport Commissioner, Mike Brown explained in an interview with Rail:

“We have a deal that stopped me pulling the plug on services. But only just. I was hours from having to stop the Underground and buses from running in this, the greatest city on Earth. How insane is that? How could that even be allowed to happen?”

A year on, the Government still has TfL living hand-to-mouth. The new Transport Commissioner, Andy Byford, has explained how the pandemic has revealed “our (i.e. TfL) financial model, with such a disproportionate reliance on fare revenue, to be not fit for purpose.

In exchange for £1.08 billion:

  • TfL has been tasked to find £900 million in cuts or ‘new income’ and increase revenue by between £500 million and £1 billion each year or make extra cuts from April 2023. This is over and above the already planned cuts of £730 million by April 2023. That’s £1.63 billion. That’s huge.

  • The Government insists “TfL will carry out a review of their pension scheme” with a “final list of assessed options under consideration by no later than 31 October 2021… an interim report no later than 11 December 2021 and a final report including a recommended approach by no later than 31 March 2022”. This is dynamite.

  • Service levels across the network will be reviewed and “TfL will be expected to take steps now to ensure they are not locking in future costs and are in a position to reduce service levels efficiently if and when required.”

  • TfL are expected to “freeze pay in line with the public sector pay pause while in receipt of significant extraordinary funding. Any bonus pay awards will not be paid for through extraordinary Government funding and TfL will have to demonstrate prudence in making any such payments”. While the agreed four-year pay deal on London Underground will be honoured, pay for TfL employees will be frozen. We are currently in the third year of the London Underground pay deal. What happens after year four (2022) will be interesting.

There is more which, for instance, aims to punish the public for doing the right thing and keeping away from transport throughout the pandemic.

For example, Shapps states:

“If the Mayor and TfL wish Londoners to continue to benefit from travel concessions and/or other benefits above those typically available elsewhere in England (such as free travel for all Londoners aged under 18 and 60-65, excluding statutory entitlements including under the Education Act 1996) then TfL/the Mayor recognise that the costs of these additional benefits will not be met by HMG funding.”

The Government, Cuts and Covid

The government made clear its intent, if not the detail, that we would be made to pay for the Covid crisis when it employed the bosses’ favourite carve-up merchants KPMG to audit TfL finances last July. To date, no one has actually seen the KPMG report (albeit the Transport Commissioner has had a view of a heavily redacted version).

Just as the government suppresses the KPMG report (paid for by the public), it is also suppressing vital data concerning the now dominant (England and Scotland) Delta (formerly Indian) variant which Independent Sage warn “has higher infectivity than the previous circulating variant, and that it is more likely to cause disease and hospitalization.”

Mounting evidence suggests a possible third wave of the health crisis. While the vaccination roll-out will play a vital part in reducing the number of fatalities, a surge could cause hospitals to struggle. Moreover, individuals remain at risk because: a) millions have simply not been vaccinated; b) those who have received one dose remain at high risk until receiving a second dose; and c) those who received two doses at an earlier stage of the vaccination programme are potentially at risk as protection from two doses wanes over time.

The government’s criminal responsibility for 150,000 avoidable Covid deaths has been addressed in depth and detail elsewhere by Counterfire. What is important at this particular juncture is that the DfT/TfL funding agreement aims to implement “a programme of work that would allow TfL to reach a financially sustainable position as soon as possible.”

The Transport Commissioner explains: “We are working hard to rebuild revenue through attracting people back to our services with nearly 60 per cent of pre-pandemic ridership already travelling again.”

That is, attracting passengers back to transport just as we are experiencing an exponentially increasing dominant variant (Delta) that is more transmissible; more vaccine resistant and more severe than the previous dominant Alpha (formerly Kent) variant and just as we need to break the chain of transmission. They really do not give a damn about our lives and livelihoods.

Sadiq Khan and TfL’s alternative cuts

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and TfL are not happy with the deal. Khan said “This is not the deal we wanted” but adds:

“We have successfully managed to see off the worst of the conditions the Government wanted to impose on London, which would not only have required huge cuts to transport services equivalent to cancelling 1 in 5 bus routes or closing a Tube line.”

Frankly, that’s not good enough. The unacceptable options presented to us appear to be ‘Government Cuts Max’ (presumably detailed in the KPMG report) and ‘TfL Cuts Lite’. Choosing between huge cuts and really huge cuts is no choice at all.

The TfL Financial Sustainability Plan issued in January 2021 was an attempt to pre-empt Government conditions and cuts with an offer of alternative cuts in order to secure a long-term financial package.

Indeed, the aforementioned £730 million of savings on top of the £900 million stated above was actually assumed in TfL’s own Business Plan.

TfL has learnt the hard way: when you offer Dracula a plentiful supply of fresh blood bags to spare your life, he’ll happily accept while sinking his teeth deep into your jugular vein too.

The TfL Plan also aimed to have us pay through cuts in ‘service levels’, ‘operating efficiencies’ and reviews of ‘pay, pensions and benefits’ (see Section 5 of the Plan). Note that Shapps, in his letter to Khan, makes clear: “As recommended in the Mayor’s Independent Review, TfL will carry out a review of their pension scheme and reform options” (emphasis added).

TfL’s understood their Plan would meet resistance. Their Report states:

“It is TfL’s view that the savings programme set out above has considerable risks. For example, the current saving programme contains options associated with workforce modernisation and productivity improvements in operational areas. These bring with them challenges associated with a complex Industrial Relations environment.”

Shapps likewise is fully aware of the inevitably of industrial conflict, which is why he’s added it as a condition to the funding agreement!

“TfL will also take all reasonable steps to avoid industrial action during the funding period, and if necessary, will be expected to take all reasonable steps to mitigate the impact of any industrial action.”

London-wide general transport strike?

When taking on the government-led assault, the unions must not subordinate their interests and power to the likes of Khan or TfL and entertain any proposals of alternative or managing cuts. Unlike Khan who wishes to ‘build bridges’ with this homicidal government the unions must prepare to fight.

The Government sniffs the pandemic has offered them a unique ‘opportunity’ to take us on. In commenting about the Williams/Shapps Review into the failed privatisation of National Rail (another huge fight on the horizon), Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson, says, “Rishi Sunak, as Chancellor, is known to have fretted at spending billions over the last year to ship ‘fresh air’ round the country.” He adds, with regards to any union industrial response, “To stop almost empty trains is an empty threat.”

Some in the unions have also repeated this same message to sound caution on taking industrial action. But such an assessment of the conflict rapidly unfolding is far too narrow. It has always been clear from the outset that no single union would be able to repel the attacks on their own.

The unions could respond along sectional lines – trains, stations, p-way, signals, buses, ferries etc – or they can accept the reality staring us all in the face. The scale and scope of the government-led attack is a general assault on us all. In turn, it necessitates a general fighting response across all transport unions.

Over the past year and more, we’ve delivered as essential workers co-ordinated support for our NHS in keeping workers, medicines, food, goods etc moving throughout the pandemic across the Capital.

That same level of co-ordination – assisted with a pan-transport unions industrial strategy – could mobilise those very same forces to face-off and defeat the government plans with a general London-wide transport unions strike.

That’s not a pipe-dream. It does require political will among the leaderships at the top of each union for sure. But it is achievable. In fact, it is essential to any serious industrial/political strategy to win.

We really do need to start thinking big. All transport unions, Aslef, RMT, TSSA and Unite, have declared throughout the pandemic that “we will not pay for the Covid crisis”; that “we demand a new normal.” Well, we all know Starmer’s Labour Party ain’t gonna deliver it. It’s down to us to fight for it.

It is the demand for a new normal – not negotiating our way back to the old – that must lie at the heart of our struggles as we defend our wages, pensions, working conditions, safety and job security.

Join the People’s Assembly National Demonstration, Saturday 26 June.

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Unjum Mirza

Unjum Mirza is a driver on the London Underground. He is on the Editorial Board of Tunnel Vision, the rank and file bulletin, and is an Aslef union branch chair.