The RMT rail union may have suspended the strike by a group of Tube maintenance workers while it considers a fresh offer, but not before enduring hysterical press and political attacks. What angered the London media and politicians from Ken Livingstone to Gordon Brown, was the fact that a group of workers rejected soothing words and actually dared to take action that was more than just a gesture. The London Underground network ground to a halt following the strike by staff who formerly worked for Metronet. This consortium, set up after New Labour’s partial privatisation of the network, collapsed recently, leaving it in the hands of administrators and Transport for London, which is part of the mayor’s Greater London Authority.
Union action on this scale is not supposed to happen any more. But while leaders from unions like Unison roll over like pussycats and allow the government to break up the health service, and dither about action over a pay award that is actually a pay cut, others are not so compliant. Last week the Prison Officers Association led an illegal walk-out. Then the Tube maintenance workers launched their strike over pensions and job security, both undermined by the collapse of Metronet. Led by general secretary Bob Crow, they also demanded the return of the Tube maintenance system to public ownership.
This was too much for the right-wing media and politicians. Yesterday the Evening Standard devoted page after page to an assault on the RMT and Crow in particular. One edition had a picture of Crow on the front page alongside a banner headline declaring ‘MAN WHO STOPPED LONDON ITS TRACKS’. On pages two and three, interviews with commuters ran under the headline ‘travellers forced to endure days of delay and frustration express their disgust at Tube strikers on a good wage’. Leaving aside the fact that the strike was actually nothing to do with wage demands, the barrage continued on the following pages.
Another double-page spread ran under the headline ‘Union plays politics and costs £50m a day’ and a sub-heading which carried the predictable report that business leaders condemned the RMT’s ‘pointless’ action over jobs and pensions. Underneath there was an attempted character assassination of Crow as the country’s “most hardline and notorious” union leader. It reported that he had been banned from a pub near his union HQ for singing too loudly! The report had to acknowledge, however, that he had built up the union’s membership. Further on in the paper, Mayor Livingstone had a whole page to condemn what he described as a “deeply damaging and pointless strike”, an article no doubt written by his £100,000-a-year advisers, many of whom laughingly claim to be left-wingers.
But the real issues were posed in another column, this time by financial editor Anthony Hilton. He wrote that the union was wrong to think its members had any more right to “future guarantees of their income and job security than anyone else who has worked for a company which went bust. It’s brutal, but it’s capitalism.” The logic is inescapable. Don’t bother resisting – it’s market capitalism stupid. You have to love it because there is no alternative. Well, the RMT – which is no longer affiliated to capitalist New Labour – is challenging that entirely business point of view. While prime minister Brown goes on constructing his one-party state, where confrontation and classes are declared things of the past, resistance is growing to Hilton’s “brutal” society. The RMT leaders have, in effect, said that another world is necessary and their action should be supported.
AWTW communications editor