FINN BRENNAN explains the background to the long-running dispute between drivers and Transport for London over the introduction of the Night Tube service
Just over two years ago, in November 2013, Transport for London invited the general secretaries of the recognised trade unions — Aslef, RMT, TSSA and Unite — to a meeting at London Underground’s headquarters.
To be honest, a summons — rather than an invitation — would be a more accurate description because we were told this was the only possible time and place for this meeting and that an important announcement would be made.
It soon became clear that this was part of a carefully co-ordinated media spin operation.
Two announcements were made. First, that every single booking office across the London Underground network was to close — with the loss of 1,000 jobs — in a flagrant breach of the pledge that Boris Johnson made during his election campaign, and second, that an all-night service was to be introduced on Friday and Saturday on some Tube lines.
No prizes for guessing which of those two stories ended up as the front-page splash in the Evening Standard that afternoon and was trumpeted as “good news for London” across the evening TV news bulletins.
And that’s exactly why Night Tube was announced the way it was. The mayor and TfL wanted a good news story to distract attention away from his latest broken promise to Londoners.
Right from the start we made it clear that we are, in principle, in favour of an all-night service. Because, as a forward-looking trade union, we believe that a world-class capital city like London deserves a world-class public transport system.
We know there is a demand and we know it could create jobs.
We said to the company: “Come and talk to us, let’s find a way to do this that means all-night services can be introduced in a way that is safe and brings benefits to passengers and the hard-working staff who will have to deliver the service.”
But, for more than a year, management simply weren’t prepared to talk to us about Night Tube. Their real agenda was booking office closures and job cuts with Night Tube a convenient distraction.
One senior manager ruefully admitted to me that their total preparations amounted to producing a copy of the Underground map with a few of the lines rubbed out!
In fact, it was only towards the end of 2014 that management started to discuss the implications of Night Tube.
It was immediately clear that they saw this as simply telling the unions about their plans rather than negotiating over the impact they would have on staff.
They wanted to introduce new rosters which would have meant a huge increase in the number of weekend and night shifts each driver was expected to work.
As drivers are paid on a salary basis they would receive no shift enhancements or overtime payments for all the extra anti-social hours they would have to work. The management also insisted on tying their pay offer for 2015 to the introduction of the Night Tube.
All that they were prepared to offer was a pay rise of 0.75 per cent, below the RPI inflation rate on which pay settlements and fare rises are based.
They also offered a one-off payment of £500 to all staff and a further £250 to drivers on Night Tube lines. This payment would not be consolidated into salary and would be non-pensionable.
This meant our members were being asked to sign up to unlimited weekend and night working, for the rest of their careers, for a one-off payment of £250 before deductions.
They knew it was an offer we would not accept.
When it became clear that further talks were futile, Aslef and the other trade unions went into official dispute.
Emboldened by the election of a new Tory government in May, the mayor instructed management to push ahead with the launch of the all-night services in September with or without union agreement.
The catalyst for our ballot for industrial action was the production of new rosters on the Victoria Line that broke current agreements which made clear that management were determined to provoke a confrontation in the hope of imposing their will.
The response from our members was magnificent. They voted by 97.3 per cent on an 87 per cent turnout to take strike action, smashing through the threshold proposed in the Trade Union Bill — a piece of legislation in which we are a specific target.
Each of our sister unions also delivered a big Yes vote. This result didn’t happen by accident, our reps and activists worked hard to deliver every vote, checking addresses were correct and that ballot papers had been received and filled in.
The key was making sure members understood the issues and just how important the battle is. Regular newsletters, emails, texts and Facebook posts were used to counteract management propaganda and the deluge of “greedy drivers holding the city to ransom” stories that filled the right-wing press.
We also did our best to make our case to the public and to fellow workers who rely on public transport, through briefings, interviews and meetings.
We took strike action on July 9 and August 6. The entire Underground system was closed, with all four trade unions standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity on the picket lines.
Despite some hostile — and in some cases downright false — media coverage, opinion polls showed that a majority of Londoners supported our stance.
Millions of working people, tired of pay freezes and employers who change working conditions on a whim, were glad to see that someone was fighting back.
We argued that, far from being greedy, Aslef is proud of the fact that we negotiate a decent salary for our members. The ones who should be ashamed are those who support anti-union legislation that entrenches low pay and forces so many workers to rely on benefits and tax credits to get by.
Fighting to protect and improve working conditions is exactly what trade unions were set up to do.
Our strikes forced the mayor to drop his plans to impose the all-night service last September. It was a major victory — we forced the company to concede that changes must come by agreement.
The negotiating process was a difficult one as each time we were close to an agreement a new obstacle was put in the way.
Management seemed to only want to offer “talks about talks” on improving conditions and not reach agreements that would actually do so.
Although they have made some improvements on the original offer, last November management ended the talks and announced that they intended to employ part-time drivers to work the Night Tube without any agreement with the unions.
That is why we have been forced to respond with more strike action — London Underground simply stopped negotiating. The sad truth is it seems they are only prepared to seriously engage with us when there is the prospect of industrial action.
Aslef is not opposed to part-time staff being recruited, but we believe it must only be done by agreement that ensures the working conditions of existing full-time staff are not undermined and that a zero-hours culture is not allowed to creep in the back door.
A decision to strike is never taken lightly. Our members don’t want to lose pay unnecessarily, nor do we want to have to cause disruption to people who rely on public transport. But when an employer ignores existing agreements and tries to force through — rather than negotiate — changes we know we have no other option.
Our announcement of new strikes has brought London Underground back to the negotiating table and we met at Acas yesterday for the first time since November 10.
It will quickly become clear if they are simply going through the motions or really want to work with us to find a solution.
It is always our intention to try to reach an agreement. But we are ready to strike again on January 27, if necessary, and I am absolutely confident that our members will be as solid and determined as they were last summer.
Finn Brennan is Aslef organiser for Tube drivers on London Underground.