Boris forced to back down

LAST WEEK striking Underground workers paralysed the capital’s transport system. This week’s planned 48-hour Tube strike has been called off following last minute management concessions during talks at ACAS on Monday. Some rabid Tory commentators are already claiming that London Underground, and by implication the Greater London Authority led by maverick Tory politician Boris Johnson, has caved in to the union demands.

But that remains to be seen. Though the immediate union demands have been met RMT and TSSA, the two rail unions in dispute, have wisely refrained from claiming any sort of victory at the moment.

It has, of course, been a bitter pill for Boris Johnson to swallow. Only a week or so ago the Tory London Mayor and his followers were talking about hiring an army of untrained scabs to staff the stations during the strike while calling on the Tory-led Coalition to bring in new labour laws to stop future strikes in what they now call an “essential” service.

London Underground has certainly backed down for the moment over their plan to close virtually all the ticket offices on the network with the possible loss of 950 jobs. LU Management has agreed to an extended consultation period over ticket office closures and a freeze on the processing of voluntary redundancy applications.

It has also agreed to a formal review of ticket office closures that will take place on a station-by-station basis, implying that some of the 260 ear-marked for closure in the original plan will remain open. The rail unions, for their part, have agreed to suspend any future industrial action during the review, which is expected to continue until April.

RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: “We now have a golden opportunity to look again in detail at all of the concerns we have raised about the impact of the cuts on our members and the services that they provide to Londoners. That is exactly what we have been calling for throughout this dispute.”

The rail unions recognise that the impact of modern machine ticketing has changed the role of the traditional booking office and they have always been ready to negotiate terms for the proposed 24-hour service the Underground plans for the future. But not at the expense of jobs or the millions of passengers whose security and safety is clearly threatened by the draconian plan that would lead to unstaffed stations covered by “roaming” staff or the dubious benefits of CCTV.

London Underground talks about “modernisation” but the real reason for the planned staff cuts is that the central government has cut a further £220 million from its already meagre subsidy to one of the biggest mass transport systems in the world. London Underground claims the travelling public support their plans but a survey of tube users for the RMT suggested that almost two thirds of passengers believed strike action is justified.

The London Underground is indeed an “essential” service and this should be recognised by central government. Billions are paid out to bail out the banks. The Royal Mail is sold at half-price and we’re told that the Government cannot afford to provide a decent public transport network in London.

London Underground already covers 91 per cent of operating costs with fare revenue. In New York the figure is 56 per cent and in Paris it is 40 per cent. London Underground also charges double the fare per kilometre travelled than the next most expensive by international comparison (Tokyo) and more than double the fare charged in New York. The restoration of the subsidy and its increase to stabilise fares is an essential demand of the broader campaign for decent public transport.