London’s tube system has been brought to a standstill by striking RMT union members. Colin Wilson explains the background to the strike and calls for full support for their fight.
Thousands of tube workers are on strike today (6 June) across London in a dispute about cuts to staff. TfL management are not filling posts as they become vacant, which has affected some 250 jobs so far. They want to carry on doing this until up to 600 posts have been lost, from a total of around 5,000.
Management argue that this is a sensible response to reduced passenger numbers as more people work from home at least some of the time. But this ‘managed decline’ is the opposite of the approach they should take. We need more people using effective public transport systems like the tube, not unplanned and disruptive change as staff leave.
Thousands of deaths are caused every year in London by air pollution, with emissions from road traffic a major cause. The most deprived communities, and people of colour, are disproportionately affected. We also need to respond to the climate crisis by reducing the use of fossil fuels in individual cars.
If there is spare capacity on the tube, so much the better. Let’s reduce the fares to increase passenger numbers – after all, the tube in central London costs more per mile than flying Upper Class to New York. Let’s get rid of a two-tier system where those who can afford it use the tube and those who can’t go by bus.
Let’s invest to make the tube, most of which was built over a hundred years ago, accessible to the many people who can’t use stairs – which would also mean employing more staff, not less. And let’s not do these things just in London, where at least we have regulated transport and an integrated ticketing system – let’s do them in all British cities.
If this sounds like a utopian dream, look at how the government can invest in high-quality public transport when it chooses to – as it did with the Elizabeth line, which opened last week. Or look at other countries such as Germany, which has introduced tickets for June, July and August which allow you to use local and regional public transport – all services except long-distance inter-city trains – for 9 euros per month, under £8.
But in London right now, nothing like that is on the cards while we have a government with no strategy beyond an instinctive hatred of public services and of public sector unions. The Tories have repeatedly refused to come up with a long-term post-pandemic funding package for Transport for London (TfL), which runs tubes, buses and some trains in the capital. Instead, they have threatened staff pensions and demanded proposals to implement their anti-union fantasy of driverless trains, unachievable in practice on a network as old as the tube.
TfL management, meanwhile, are not just cutting tube staff, but ‘consulting’ on the abolition of sixteen bus routes. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has described these as ‘Tory bus cuts’ – he now needs to demand proper TfL funding from a divided Tory government weakened by Partygate. As Mick Lynch of the RMT rail union says, ‘Mayor Khan must choose either to take on the Tory government and demand a just funding deal for Londoners or attack loyal Tube workers who keep the capital moving day in day out.’
It’s only two years since London’s transport workers were hailed as heroes who put themselves at risk to keep the city moving through the first lockdown. At least 88 transport workers have died of Covid during the pandemic in London. Those numbers include at least 51 bus drivers, many infected at work, and rail worker Belly Mujinga, who worked at Victoria station for Govia Thameslink and was infected with Covid after an alleged incident when a man spat and coughed at her. We stood by transport workers then, and today we should continue to defend them and the transport systems they run.