The Battle to Save London Underground

Taj Ali

Today, more than 10,000 London Underground workers are on strike. They're fighting against cuts that threaten their jobs, terms and conditions – and will decimate services for the public.

(Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

Sam has worked on the London Underground as a member of station staff for decades. ‘I remember when we hit one million passengers in 1996. We had double the number of staff. We now have around 4 million passengers and half as many staff,’ he tells Tribune

When Sam started working on the London Underground, the service was funded by advertising revenue, ticket sales and a substantial government subsidy. The latter has been abolished. Today, London is the only major city in the world without a government-subsidised public transport system. The attempt to force a major transport system to be self-sufficient was cruelly exposed by the shocks of the pandemic, which caused fare revenues to plummet and plunged TFL’s finances into crisis.

Managed Decline

The Government used the short-term decline in passenger numbers to usher in a new wave of cuts to transport budgets. Transport for London hasn’t put up much of a fight, accepting wholesale cuts to London Underground.

For tube workers, it means threats to pensions, job cuts and attacks on working conditions. For the travelling public, it means cuts to stations and maintenance, leading to more unstaffed stations and a lowering of safety standards. 

There are various functions on the underground; station staff, fleet staff, drivers and signals and track teams. Different functions have been attacked at different stages, with station staff first targeted with 600 jobs at risk. 

Station staff like Sam are responsible for the opening and closing of stations and dealing with passenger complaints, and often find themselves providing directions. Today, he’s one of ten thousand RMT members who, along with the train drivers union ASLEF, have shut down the London Underground in a strike over pensions, attacks on working conditions and the threat of job losses. 

‘They’re destroying our work-life balance; they want to impose extreme changes to rosters, increase weekend work and put staff that remain on more extreme shifts,’ explains Sam. 

‘500 staff will be displaced across the network. When your shift starts at 4:50 in the morning and ends at 1:30, sometimes a bit later, that additional 45 minutes will mean for some that coming to work will become untenable.’ 

Graham has worked on the London Underground for several years. He currently works on the Metropolitan line as fleet staff, conducting engineering on trains and shunting them between yards and platforms. ‘At the moment, we don’t have enough staff to keep all the stations open. Every day you’ll see stations that can’t open because of staff shortages. So these 600 job cuts are not compulsory redundancies, but what they’re doing is not filling vacancies when people retire,’ he explains. ‘They want to reduce the staff so that we have staffless stations.’ 

Graham’s function, fleet, is the latest to be attacked. ‘They want to change the world of work for us, so hours can’t be flexible,’ says Graham. ‘It could mean you’re working in one depot one day and another depot the next day. It will completely change the way that we live our lives.’ 

Alan has worked on the London Underground for around half a decade. He’s spent the past year and a half as a tube driver on the Northern line and often finds himself working unsociable hours—early starts, late finishes and weekend work. Cuts to station staff will directly impact tube drivers like Alan. At the end of a shift, often around 1AM, tube drivers are expected to check every carriage is empty. This is often done with the help of a station staff member, something that will soon no longer be the case due to cuts. 

‘If it’s only you clearing the train, it’s going to take longer. So what they have proposed instead is that you just make an announcement, tell everyone to get off the train, turn the lights on and off a couple of times, shut the doors and go,’ explains Alan. 

Late at night, customers are often drunk or asleep on trains, meaning they don’t always pay attention. ‘TFL trialled it. Over six months, over a thousand people hadn’t left the train. Late at night, when it’s just you and a drunk customer, they’re often belligerent—it’s just not a safe situation to be in.’

TFL reportedly plans to adopt this new model across the underground. It’s one of many cost-saving measures that are detrimental to staff and passengers alike. And it’s just the beginning. ‘We’re one industry. An attack on one is an attack on all. Cuts to station staff jobs are attacks on tube driver safety and attacks on the travelling public.’ 


Attacks on Pensions

TFL plans to rip up dozens of agreements with the union in order to push through a complete overhaul of working practices—the main issue across the board is attacks on pensions.

‘Our pension currently stands as a final salary pension. They want to cut it on average about 33 percent, saving 100 million pounds a year,’ says Graham. 

About 99 percent of London Underground employees are in the pension fund. If planned cuts go ahead, London underground staff could see a 33 percent reduction in their final salary and an increased retirement age.  

TFL insists that nothing will change for those already on the job, instead arguing that changes to pensions will only affect new entrants—something tube workers like Alan are sceptical about. ‘They are creating a two-tier workforce. We’ve seen this time and time again, new people paying into a different scheme. The company doesn’t have so much incentive to keep the older scheme healthy.’

Budget Cuts

Transport for London justifies attacks on terms and conditions by pointing to budget cuts imposed by the government—in 2018, Transport for London’s almost £700 million annual grant was abolished. However, tube workers like Graham say that Transport for London simply hasn’t put up much of a fight and has failed to consult with unions like the RMT. 

‘They didn’t include us or any other trade unions when they were negotiating with the government, agreeing to make massive cuts. They accepted a long-term funding deal with strings attached and they’re now forcing that upon us.’ 

Tube workers are clear that they are not making any additional demands. They are simply seeking to defend themselves from further cuts. The strike today is about defending jobs, terms and conditions.  

There’s an added incentive to make cuts too. ‘They’ve offered a bonus of 12 million pounds to directors to implement these cuts,’ explains Sam. 

‘It’s not as if the Government has come along and given them specific targets or specific areas of the railway to cut. They’ve basically said you need to save this much money. And it’s up to you how you do it. They’ve done it by attacking the lowest-paid workers, as they always do. They’ve capitulated completely at the expense of the service and passenger safety.’ 

The RMT say they have invited the mayor for talks facilitated by ACAS. He has so far refused to join those talks.

Towards a Sustainable Transport System

This dispute and the driving down of living standards for transport workers is the consequence of a failed funding model in London’s transport system. The RMT is campaigning for the restoration of the TFL grant.

‘The tube is essentially not funded correctly. Ours is supposed to be 95 percent ticket funded. The nearest to us is the Madrid Metro system which is 55 percent ticket funded and 45 percent state funded,’ says Rhys.

Alan sees this reliance merely on advertising and passenger revenue for the day-to-day running of a vital transport system as simply unsustainable. 

‘It’s unfair for passengers too. Fares are too high. They’re higher than the rest of the world. It puts tourists off from coming here. It discourages people from travelling to work. I thought the Government wanted people out and about. I thought they wanted a thriving economy. We call it public transport because it’s supposed to be for the public good. This Government is not interested in that.’ 

Sam says today’s strike is a last-ditch attempt to lobby the Mayor to leave pensions intact and protect jobs that are under threat. But the long-term aim is to push for a public ownership model funded by local and national government, so workers like Sam aren’t forced to strike so often just to defend their livelihoods. 

It’s a vision the RMT seeks to champion both for its workforce and London’s travelling public. And unless Transport for London and Westminster get behind this vision, strikes like this are set to continue.