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Beyond the Usual Union Structures

Workers at Metronet, the former London Underground (LUL) engineering contractor, have developed their Strike Committee as a form of rank and file organisation that represents an interesting step beyond the confines of the usual trade union structures. Now that the track contract is back in house, they are rolling this organising model out across the whole of the underground to become the London Underground Strike Committee. Here we look at the background of struggle against which the strike committee has been built up, and the bottom up tactics that have been vital to its successes.

Historically, the RMT’s strength on the underground had been among train drivers and station staff. Engineering workers had been the poor relations, and the union had relied on drivers to win disputes.

In 1998 the Public Private Partner-ship (PPP) for the Tube was an-nounced, with the RMT and other unions opposing it and organising a series of one day strikes. This built up resistance, delayed the PPP until 2003 and won a series of concessions including no compulsory redundancies. In addition, all staff reductions were classified as matters for negotiation, not simply consultation, making them harder to implement and easier to organise against. This agreement, dubbed the “jobs for life deal” by the Daily Telegraph, had been won through balloting for strike action to take place during General Election week, demonstrating that well timed industrial action, or the threat of it, is more effective. The fight also turned the RMT membership into fighters, and they adopted a “Trojan horse” strategy of fighting the PPP from within.

During this period, the RMT leadership was overstretched and couldn’t attend all of the many meetings, which consequently were conducted by the workplace reps, displacing full timers and taking control of the union on the underground. It is from this, and through a series of disputes, that the strike committee model of rank and file organisation on the underground has been developed. The years between the start of the PPP in 2003 up to the present have seen the following disputes:

  • in the first pay round of the PPP the union struck to win a good pay deal, raising the profile of the engineering branches and giving their members confidence;
  • 2005: when Metronet tried to cut jobs, simply to increase profits, the RMT used the “jobs for life deal” to grind them down, holding a solid strike with solidarity from train drivers and station staff;
  • also in 2005, Metronet tried to outsource train maintenance; reps were worried about “ballot fatigue” among members, so they formed the Strike Committee to widen rank and file involvement – 25 to 30 delegates came from all parts of the workforce, a Litera-ture Group produced leaflets and information, and the Negotiating Team had to report to the Strike Committee to avoid isolation at ACAS; they won a settlement which stopped the reorganisation;
  • when Metronet went into administration the union had its most successful strike, with great solidarity from other workers; they not only stopped all lines maintained by Metronet but, through control of certain infrastructure, they also stopped the Jubilee and Piccadilly Lines, maintained by Tubelines; a key factor in the victory was that the strike was kept going during negotiations;
  • the fifth dispute, when the contract went back in house, aimed to win equality of pension and travel rights for workers who started during the PPP and who hadn’t transferred from LUL; however, RMT leaders were keener on getting the contract back in house than on workers’ pay and conditions and, as the dispute held up this objective, they hastily agreed a deal over the workers’ heads and had to be challenged over it;
  • last year saw the attempted victimisation of safety rep, Andy Littlechild; the sacking would have been the first of many in an attempt to break the union, but a 48 hour strike, coordinated via the Shop Stewards Network to coincide with planned bus workers’ strikes, forced management to cave in;
  •  a new dispute is brewing after LUL announced 1,000 job cuts, threatening the “jobs for life deal” and seeking compulsory redundancies and a five year pay cut; with the Metronet organising model now becoming the London Regional Trans-port Strike Com-mittee, the successful methods used in the past mean that acti-vists are confident they will win.

The tactics used by the Metronet Strike Committee are crucial factors in its successes. Their organising model is built from the bottom up – the reps meet with the rank and file members; the reps then meet with the Strike Committee; and the Negotiating Team takes its lead from the Strike Committee. They use the ACAS guidelines on consultation to organise workplace meetings to speak with the membership. After talks at ACAS, the Strike Committee meets and coordinates the activities of the reps while the Literature Group constantly puts out information to the membership. When still under Metronet they also involved other grades, like drivers and station staff, in the Strike Committee. When it suited them, they also made sure that Metronet and LUL knew what they were doing, as it put pressure on them to back down.

Widening involvement maintains rank and file control and provides an anchor for the Negotiating Team, who could easily become isolated and open to the suggestions of management and full timers at ACAS. The Strike Committee had even considered giving the Negotia-ting Team a mandate that would be flexible but with a bottom line beyond which they would be trusted not concede. If the Negotiating Team were in a position where they had to break the mandate to make progress, they would have to meet with the Strike Committee first. The Strike Committee is also able to monitor and challenge actions by full time officials and, crucially, does not call off any strike before a firm deal is on the table.

Some factors in their success are unique. They had built up a culture of resistance from fighting the PPP; they had the “jobs for life deal”; they also had a critical mass of good reps – whereas TubeLines had a shortage of reps and workers have suffered in comparison despite similar conditions. Solidarity was also built up with the many subcontractors and agency workers on the track, over health & safety issues, for instance. This paid off when the RMT fought against the PPP – even though ten RMT members scabbed on the first strike, none of the 200 agency workers crossed picket lines. Another factor was their ability to have big mass meetings, as the workforce is dispersed and has to come back to the depot. The RMT also has a “short structure” where there are not too many layers between the rank and file and the national leadership, which makes it easier to pressurise the leadership. The small number of full timers also worked in the reps’ favour.

This organising model shows the possibilities for building a culture of resistance in any workplace, if effective reps, and affinity among them, are built up and spread out. A resolution is to be put to the RMT’s AGM to formalise the position of Strike Committees in the union’s structure. Although it includes a few sops to the Executive, it would also make them accountable and force them to consult Strike Committees before doing any deal with bosses.

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