London tube workers have been fighting to ensure a safe service during the Covid crisis; here’s its timeline, by Unjum Mirza, driver and Aslef branch chair
11am Friday 17 April: train drivers across London Underground depots observe a minute’s silence in tribute to the 26 lives of our brothers and sisters lost on the buses and across the TfL network.
7.39pm Friday 17 April London Underground ‘Employee Communications – Introduction of revised Covid-19 timetables and associated duty schedules’. The management notice explained ‘flat 7.12hrs rosters’ would be imposed on train drivers from 26 April ‘across all our lines’.
The response from the rank and file and union was swift.
Within twenty-four hours over the weekend, every Branch Secretary and Branch Chair on London Underground sent their own communication to train drivers concluding:
‘It would be remiss of us to advise you to work the imposed duties that are the exact same as those we have already rejected on 2 April 2020… we remind you: We signed a contract of employment with London Underground. We did not sign a suicide pact. Our priority is to you, your families, our NHS and our communities. LU Directors’ appear hell-bent on sabotaging our efforts’.
Within the same 24-hours every branch, representing every depot, across the entire Combine had organised an Emergency Branch Meeting and unanimously passed Emergency dispute resolutions.
Monday 20 April, our Executive Committee met and decided: ‘…the General Secretary be instructed to advise the Managing Director London Underground that the imposition of duty sheets… has brought them into dispute with Aslef (with) the necessary steps to ballot our members… (and) remind members of their statutory right to refuse to work on the grounds of health and safety…’.
Tuesday 21 April. RMT Executive (another major union on London Underground) declare a dispute with London Underground. Very important – a virus does not check for union affiliation. London Underground Directors agree to meet the unions at ACAS.
Wednesday 22 April: Union officials relayed the depth of anger felt by rank and file to London Underground Directors. London Underground humiliatingly agree: ‘We will NOT start to operate the timetable notices titled COVID-19 from Sunday 26 April; Instead we will continue to operate the emergency timetables on each line that we operate today; this will mean that local working practices, as they are today, will not immediately change; We will then start working together at local level, to make local changes to rosters, to try to meet all of the issues that were raised in the initial local meetings.’
As we speak, local reps are scrutinising each and every duty schedule/roster to ensure it is safe – that they meet the required social distancing criteria; that our meal breaks are at home depots etc
I will not discuss the tactics of the rank and file - we remain in dispute whilst addressing the rosters.
However, since the lockdown was announced on 23 March train drivers and the unions have had to, for all intents and purposes, take over the running of the operational railway to ensure a solidarity service (what management call an emergency service) continued running for our NHS and frontline staff while ensuring our own safety.
Management have addressed this Public Health crisis as if it were a Public Relations crisis. When the lockdown was announced, the GLA Transport Commissioner (former LU managing director) explained that 40 stations had been closed and services reduced in response to coronavirus.
We were all sat in the depots scratching our heads because we know that that is actually an existing LU contingency in response to a stations industrial strike! The virus was not forming picket lines across the capital. It was spreading far and wide and fast with London Underground acting as a key medium of transmission.
While we’ve received plentiful platitudes from management, what we actually needed was protection. Every item of PPE, every single measure in place for our safety, has been fought for, scrutinised (and in the case of the imposed rosters, resisted) and won by the unions and rank and file members.
My branch has been running a series of articles on Transport and Key Workers. Our fourth edition included a poster ‘I Do Mind Dying’ a lyric from Joe L Carter’s song Please Mr Foreman
(The lyric also provided the title for Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s classic I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution.)
In early April, drivers from Seven Sisters and Brixton depots on the Victoria Line refused to work on the grounds of health and safety because management refused to offer the dates our cabs had been disinfected. TfL stated it had a new anti-viral disinfectant that lasts 30 days that they agreed to apply every 21 days. Great. So, as drivers asked: why not tell us when you applied it and when next its application is due? Why is it you demand a cleaner log and sign when they’ve cleaned the toilets but it’s ok for you not to do the same for our cabs? As news filtered through about the first few deaths on the buses, LU’s refusal to issue logs and dates naturally aroused suspicion and some anxiety.
The refusals to work forced a meeting with directors that afternoon and they acceded to our demand immediately.
Every day, new struggles surface. As I write, TfL have announced 7,000 staff are to be furloughed amid ‘massive financial challenges’. We remain ever vigilant and ready to take up every issue. Most of what we’ve won we want to remain in place whenever the lockdown restrictions ease. Why? It’s simple really: preparation for a second wave.
There’s much, much more to address – industrial, economic and political - but that’ll have to wait for now. Suffice to say, LU directors continue to blindly follow central government’s advice. It is not necessary to address central government criminal failures here – that has, and continues to be, addressed elsewhere by Counterfire. Essentially, you can’t believe a word they say. We’re left, to paraphrase Trotsky, constantly seeking the truth by comparing the lies.
Most immediate for us in the depots is recognising that London Underground’s preparedness has been non-existent. Meanwhile, London Underground’s contingencies appear predicated on a wing and a prayer – where we do the praying and they do the winging.
I see the TUC is demanding a Public Inquiry when this all said and done. Good.
But what we need now is to turn the expressions of fear, anger and solidarity of millions into resistance against any attempts to restore a system based on profit, greed and racism.
On the 40th anniversary of the NHS under Thatcher, the great east London GP and socialist David Widgery wrote: ‘we need a society centred around good health rather than a health service snuffling after a disease like a baffled bloodhound. It tells me not that the NHS has failed, but that it has not been given a real chance… the health service is something worth fighting for. And in that fight, we may glimpse our potential to create a society run on a different and better basis.’
The struggles are not impending. The struggles are now. Each and every one of them will help shape the inevitable fights to come. The future is here.
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.
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