ASLEF members on picket. ASLEF members on picket. Source: ASLEFunion / Twitter / with permission

Counterfire speaks to an Aslef tube driver about the attacks on London Underground and the 15 March strike

We knew we’d get a yes vote, but what a fantastic result: 99% vote for strike action! It really reflects the anger and determination of the members. I can say with total confidence, the strike on 15 March is going to be solid. There’ll be no service on the entire London Underground. The Tory government, the mayor, TfL and management must understand the strength of feeling among the members in defending the terms and conditions we have fought for and won in the past. And let’s be clear, everything we won, and I mean everything we have won in the past, is now under attack on many fronts.

Ground zero

In a nutshell, management’s ‘Trains Modernisation’ proposals mean drivers will work harder and longer for less. The attacks include things like proposals for a new draconian attendance policy and changes to the disciplinary policy. Things like remote booking-on and off, which will increase the length of time drivers are at work; booking-on 24 hours a day; longer driving times, five hours driving time on the first half of our duties; six hours without a break; shifts up to ten hours long, including your meal break; booking-on and off with iPads; moving your start and finish times at short notice; overtime paid by the minute; the end of all local agreements; the end of all fixed-links; meal-reliefs at locations that you don’t normally go to; no confirmation of existing agreements remaining, like New Years’ Eve enhanced payments; overtime and rest-day working imposed, which will both contract the workforce over time, and pull up the ladder for those seeking employment as train drivers in the future. They want the lot.

And they call it ‘Trains Modernisation’.  But it’s actually ground zero on train drivers. They want to enforce their image of the ‘perfect’ train driver – no agreements, nothing. We’re getting attacked all around town. The only ‘dead-time’ on any duty would be changing ends and walking to your meal-relief location and back. Otherwise, you’ll be working flat out from the time you book on until the time you book-off.

Making us pay

The driving force of all of this is the funding crisis TfL faces in recovering the cost of the pandemic, i.e. saving money, increasing productivity, and increasing flexibility. And it’s us they want to pay for it. But let’s be honest, this is a case of taking advantage of the pandemic to go for things they’ve always wanted. So, it’s not really down to costs. We know the money is there to fund TfL, just as the money is there to fund our NHS and our teachers. They’ve had a team of twenty or so managers, many on full-time release, looking at our agreements for many years – looking at every aspect of what a driver does that they don’t like – and they’ve filled their basket of attacks to rob us of all the gains we won as a union. So, all this stuff about having to make savings is a bit of a red herring because this is something they’ve wanted to implement for a long time. The pandemic has provided the excuse.

The closest you can compare to this scale of attack is what we call the ‘Company Plan’ on the job that took place in 1992, when all staff were forced to accept changes and sign new contracts, in essence, what today we call fire-and-rehire. But the attacks we face today are even bigger. And I’ve not even mentioned the attack on our pensions yet! Whichever option the government and TfL take in ‘reforming’ our pensions  – and we still don’t quite know – you can bet your bottom dollar, it won’t be good, it will result in a massive attack – a cut in our deferred wages. They’ve constantly kicked the can down the road, but we have to be ready, and we are ready to take this fight on.

Politically driven

Everyone knows it’s the Tory government pulling the strings behind all of this. They’re trying to take us on, as they’re trying to take on the unions generally, everyone knows that now. That’s why the union hasn’t been able to negotiate with the individual train-operating companies on the national dispute. On the national dispute, what did they expect people to do when they’ve not had a pay rise for four years and inflation is running at 10%? How many years are you expected to go without a pay rise and watch your salary become less and less valuable in real terms until you end up on half the wage you started with? What’s acceptable? Four years without a pay rise? Six years? Ten years? It’s completely unacceptable. It’s the same everywhere. Sure, there are different detail and specifics about each job and industry. But we’re all under attack by the same Tory government and that’s the link between all these disputes. 

It’s the same on the tube, and where the Tories put restrictions on London Underground to make sure the London Mayor comes out with the worst possible deal, so they can blame him for the fall-out. The attacks are completely politically driven.

When you’ve got nurses going on strike, ambulance workers, junior doctors, teachers, and civil servants, you find that everyone who had to go to work during the pandemic is getting shafted. Meanwhile, the government, who lied to us all, threw parties during the national health emergency, and lined their pockets with dodgy PPE contract deals and the rest, are merely constantly changing the guard at the top of a toxic regime without a vote for the public to decide, without any semblance of democracy. The same goes for their mates in the banks, the energy companies, the CEOs and the rest of it. We put our health on the line to help the NHS save lives, and all of us are now being shafted.

15 March – Strike!

But you can’t leave it there. The Labour party – or more accurately, the ‘Tories in Red’ – aren’t doing working-class people any favours. Of course, we all want the Tories out. But Labour has to either step up the fight or step out of the way for us to lead the fight against the Tories. 

Labour may talk about workers’ rights, and some even talk about the 1945 government etc, but that’s history. In my history, Labour has done little if anything for workers’ rights, in opposition or in power. Why didn’t they repeal the anti-union laws? Now we’re facing further anti-union laws: the most draconian laws and restrictions on trade-union rights. Where are the mass demonstrations and protests led by Labour in defence of our workers’ rights? I don’t hear anyone in Labour talking about ending zero-hour contracts, or promising workers CPI (let alone RPI) pay rises, if they come to power.

That’s why the fight is down to us. At some point, you have to respond to these attacks with more than words. We have to make sure the train operator job remains a good job for ourselves, but also for future generations. And that’s why we’re striking. And as you know, we’re not alone. We’ll see you on the picket line on 15 March!

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