Unions unite in campaign for London’s transport system

Peter Kavanagh
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Some 250 attended an online rally in defence of London’s transpot on Wednesday 15 July

Pete Kavanagh, Unite London Regional Secretary spoke with passion about the kind of campaign needed. See his contribution below.

Good evening comrades. Really pleased to be joining sister trade unions within London transport. Nothing like a crisis to bring our Unions together! 

And this is a crisis!

Firstly, a global health crisis, with 13.5m cases and 580,000 deaths to date. In this country, thanks to our bumbling, incompetent government, the number of deaths due to Covid-19, is only topped by the USA and Brazil – both also led – or misled by extreme Right wing, free market lunatics who have until recently, denied the very existence of the virus or described it as the ‘sniffles’. And when we look at the death rate, per head of population, the UK comes out top – PM Johnson – you should hang your head in shame, in fact you should resign.

And we know who has paid the harshest price – Black, Asian and ethnic minority people and workers – and the poorest in our communities generally. Those who suffer from poor access to health care, in poor and overcrowded housing – and crucially those on the front-line when it has come to keeping our society going through this pandemic – nurses, care assistants, security guards, shop workers – and of course transport workers. 33 London bus workers, 29 of them drivers and many more transport workers across TfL and the Underground. 

And now, an economic crisis.

The ruling class is already drawing up its contingency plans to get over the ‘inconvenience’ of a slump in productivity and output – their plan is very crude and it’s very simple – “Make the workers pay”. Many sectors are already in meltdown.

And they would get away with this if it wasn’t for one thing standing in their way – the organised working class within their Trade Unions. And more and more workers are realising this. Since the start of the pandemic, 15,000 new members have joined Unite just in our London and Eastern region.

And we need to organise now more than ever.

Transport workers who have heroically kept London moving – carrying other essential workers to their places of work in hospitals, care homes, supermarkets and warehouses – are now faced with the prospect of this government taking a wrecking ball to one of the world’s largest public transport systems. It’s revenge time for the Tories. “How dare a Labour politician get himself elected as Mayor of London overseeing one of the world’s great cities”? 

By the way, I came across a quote by Johnson commenting after the death of our comrade, Bob Crow – “One thing that Bob Crow and I were completely united upon was fighting for a good deal for London”. That hypocritical statement has obviously gone right out of the window now that he is in a position to ensure London gets a good deal!”

If anyone is in any doubt, the threats are huge – and the threats are driven by politics – not economic necessity.

We all understand that the Lockdown and the slump in passenger numbers, has decimated fares revenue – to the tune of £600m per month – and has taken TfL to the brink of collapse. 

But unlike Network Rail which was effectively given a ‘no strings’ bail out, TfL’s ‘humiliating handout’ has come with punitive strings – or ropes – attached. The Mayor has been forced to raise fares, extend the Congestion Charge and scrap concessions. 

But the ‘deal’ itself needs to be closely scrutinised.

London was already reeling from the withdrawal of £700m per year from Central government – agreed by Johnson when he was Mayor – leaving London as the only major city in Europe without public subsidy.

The bailout, made up of loans as well as grant, of £1.6m is wholly inadequate, will not see the summer out and will inevitably lead to very significant cuts. The loans mean that TfL will be saddled with debt forcing even further pressure on the ability to maintain current essential services. 

And this is just the start.

The Tory government has made it clear that it does not trust a Labour Mayor to hold the purse strings and a condition of the ‘bailout’ is that two of its own officials now sit on the TfL Board to keep an eye. 

And KPMG, one of the Big 4 Accountancy firms in the City, have been appointed to carry out a ‘root and branch’ financial review of TfL. Do we really want to see a Capitalist Accounting institution making decisions about our public transport system, our members’ jobs, their Terms and Conditions?

We know what this financial review means – and what it will not mean.

It will not mean ensuring that there is adequate funding to maintain a world-class integrated transport system.

It will not mean ensuring that the tens of thousands of transport workers on the Buses, the Underground, within TfL are treated fairly in terms of remuneration or that their pensions are secure.

It will not mean investing in green vehicles to address the desperate need to clean up London’s air quality – especially in the most deprived areas of our city – and promoting public transport to slash congestion and get our economy moving again.

It will certainly not mean making fully accessible our transport network.

So what will it mean?

We are staring down the barrel of a gun with its sights firmly set on a programme of mass redundancies 

Our members’ Terms and Conditions will be seen as fertile ground for further financial savings

Further attacks on Union facility time – the Evening Standard already highlighting the costs of this within an article about those senior people in TfL whose salaries are in excess of £100,000

An immediate halt to the purchase of green buses 

An immediate halt to step free access on the Underground

The Privatisation vultures will be let loose – looking for every opportunity to move what should be a fully funded, integrated and accessible Public transport system into the murky world of division, fragmentation, private greed and private profit.

Far from learning the lessons of failed privatisation, competitive tendering and the relentless associated insecurity for the workforce, the Tories will be drooling for more and more.

On the Buses, mileage operated has already been cut by 5% prior to the pandemic – largely un-noticed due to existing staff shortages. However, any move to reduce further will mean an impact on jobs and earnings. 

Driver facilities which Unite has worked tirelessly to improve will be at threat – at a time when public health demands that such facilities are available as the key preventive measure t stop the spread of the virus. 

There are already murmurings of ‘remote sign on’ to cut costs – meaning even less access to hand washing facilities in the garages. This is life or death territory. 

And the Operators and some in TfL will see this as a perfect excuse to run away from Unite’s major campaign and demands on Driver Fatigue, which was making good progress before March.

So – what should our response be, what do we need to do?

Firstly, we need to ensure our members understand the scale of this threat

Secondly, we need to make this an external facing campaign, educating the public making good use of social media – and working closely with community, environmental and disabled groups

Thirdly, we need to be making political alliances – talking to Labour MP’s and Councils across London and making clear that we expect them to fully support our demands 

And lastly, we need to ensure that this government – as well as the employers and TfL – understand that we will fight any and all attacks on our members’ jobs and conditions.

So, a political, community and and when necessary, an INDUSTRIAL campaign – and all of that will require organising, communication, cooperation and solidarity