London Underground workers are ensuring that protecting lives comes first, explains Unjum Mirza, driver and Aslef union branch chair 

Thursday 30 April – the eve of May Day. First, we forced the London Underground directors to withdraw their threat to impose rosters on drivers. Now, following further talks at ACAS, they have completely caved-in. As we said all along, their Emergency Timetable and associated duty sheets were simply unsafe. 

Union reps across London Underground scrutinised the duty sheets. In some depots, reps even made a good go at potentially making them work. But here, managers refused to accept union proposals because they “didn’t have enough control over the duties”. 

In other words, over the past few weeks of the lockdown we have demonstrated that a whole swathe of managers are completely irrelevant to the running of the operational railway. When we largely took control to run a solidarity service for our NHS and frontline workers, it became clear that we don’t really need them.

What do they actually do? Their roles have been exposed to merely harass union members back to work (including those showing symptoms). Only now, they do it sat in their PJs on the telephone from the safety of their homes – while bullying drivers to leave their own. 

Out of touch 

The rejected duty sheets/rosters were generated by another group of managers who are totally divorced from the real world, inputting datasets on a computer programme while sat at their breakfast table, sipping coffee and munching on toast. Train drivers were a mere secondary (if that) consideration.

What the directors don’t understand is that we have a principle on the job: those who do the “handle-time” have the final say on the duties. The “handle” of course is the ‘dead man’s handle’ (gender neutral: the “Handle” or the Traction Brake Controller – TBC). 

Maybe the directors imagined the ‘dead man’s handle’ as some kind of Boris Karloff mummy-corpse character. I don’t know. But I assure you, the front cab of a train is occupied by living workers and ‘dead man’s handle’ is a designed safety feature that protects the lives of both drivers and passengers.

All in all, this was a very serious safety dispute in the middle of an on-going epic public health crisis. 

You wouldn’t think that if you listen to the Prime Minister, government ministers and our own directors who follow their guidance blindly in preparing for easing the lockdown. It’s small wonder why, to cite Bob Dylan’s All along the Watchtower, “there are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke”.

We’re heading for the worst Covid-19 death rate in Europe. According to Boris Johnson, the government strategy has been a “success”. As our sister union from New York explained: “Our labor has been considered essential. Our health has been considered negotiable”

Fight for our future 

Today, while our PM’s friend Donald Trump promotes the idea of injecting disinfectant and the Pentagon releases naval aircraft footage of UFOs, in just one month the number of US Covid-19 related deaths surpassed the total recorded American soldiers dead in Vietnam during 1965 -75. 

Sure, that puts our victory in perspective.  

But it is precisely these struggles – like ours, like the climbdown by Royal Mail in the face of a rebellion by postal workers, like the cleaners in the NHS, like striking workers across Amazon, like yours – that will be key to shaping our future. 

When government ministers acknowledge the role of unions in fighting coronavirus during their daily briefings, it shouldn’t fill us with pride. On the contrary, we don’t want any form of association with that bunch of social Darwinists. 

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote “the real constitution of things is accustomed to hide itself”. But we live at a moment where, whilst the constitution of the coronavirus remains elusive, it has in fact blown the lid off neo-liberal capitalism to reveal itself as the greatest underlying health risk to us all.

We’re not all equal 

Counterfire continues to demystify the true class relations of exploitation, power and production in society so there is no need for repeating that here. 

Suffice to say, the Office for National Statistics states: “People living in more deprived areas have experienced Covid-19 mortality rates more than double those living in less deprived areas. General mortality rates are normally higher in more deprived areas, but so far Covid-19 appears to be taking them higher still”. 

So, when assessing the Covid-19 deaths, we must note that race, class, inequality and the years the locusts had eaten before the pandemic are just as much a cause as the virus itself.

As dialectical biologists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins put it: “When we change our relations with nature, we also change epidemiology and the opportunities for infection… We have to take up health as a pervasive issue as we do with problems of the environment; they are aspects of class struggle, not an alternative to it”.

Wildcats keep growling 

We are alarmed by the TUC call for a National Council for Reconstruction involving unions and business. When TUC leader Frances O’Grady says “Let’s rebuild our country so it works for everyone” this is clearly aimed at suppressing any potential workers’ struggles and discontent while collaboration is sought with the very people who are playing Russian Roulette with our lives this very minute.

When London Underground’s directors threatened to impose rosters on us “a wild cat did growl”. They have backed down – for now. The wildcat remains on the prowl. And it must.

We know we’re only as good as good as our last victory. Ordinarily, we can savour a victory for a time. But, given the speed of events – the compression of struggles in space and time – we are left in perpetual preparation for the next fight.

This government has been responsible for thousands of avoidable deaths. As the government plans to lift the lockdown, thousands more lives are at risk. “This is not our fate… so let us stop talking falsely now, the hour’s getting late”

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

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.