Strike Action (Supplementary) [2]

Session date: 
February 21, 2006
Question By: 
Roger Evans
GLA Conservatives
Asked Of: 
The Mayor


That is good news and Londoners will be pleased to hear about it. I note, from your very detailed monthly report that you presented to us, that you met with Keith Norman, General Secretary of ASLEF, on 19 January. Following that, Mr Norman seemed to take over responsibility for the London dispute from the ASLEF London negotiator. Could you tell us a bit more about that meeting that you had with Mr Norman, and if you have had any similar meetings with the leaders of the RMT?

Supplementary To: 


Answer for Strike Action (Supplementary) [2]

Answer for Strike Action (Supplementary) [2]

Answered By: 
The Mayor

The Mayor: I am not in a position to comment on any of the internal processes of ASLEF, and I did not meet Mr Norman from ASLEF ' the General Secretary ' in order to discuss that. I met the General Secretary of ASLEF, and the President of his union, to say that I thought that there needed to be a change in the way industrial relations operated. Some years ago, the Underground drifted into a position where a strike was part of the negotiating process, and I put the view that it seemed to me that a strike is the inevitable consequence of a breakdown of the negotiating process, and I thought it was a mistake that both ASLEF and the RMT had got into this pattern of using them as part of the negotiating process.

I am not going to report to you what he said to me, because I think we cannot have frank discussions with trade union leaders on that basis, but I think everyone came away from the meeting with a better understanding of the other side. They have a genuine worry about LU appearing to be too heavy-handed with disciplining drivers who have overrun a signal ' red SPADs, or signals passed at danger ' and we made it absolutely clear that we are putting in place a disciplinary structure, which is in line with ASLEF. We are in the rather bizarre position that the existing code of discipline and consultation has been agreed with ASLEF, but has never been agreed with the RMT, so LU have gone to the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), asked what is current best practice, and have submitted this to the three rail unions for their comments. ASLEF have come back with many positive comments, and many of those we will take up. We are hoping to engage the RMT in these discussions. I have had no meetings with the RMT.

Roger Evans (AM): I think everyone here would support the approach that you have taken on this occasion to industrial relations on the Tube. Could you tell us why you think it is that turnouts are so low on strike ballots generally on the Tube ' usually, below 50%?

The Mayor: We ' that is the Greater London Authority (GLA) ' are in no position to cast aspersions on anybody else's turnouts. It seems to me that turnouts in Underground union strike ballots are about the same level as the turnouts for our election. I regret this; I would love to see 100% turnout for our election and a 100% vote in a trade union internal ballot as well. I suppose it is just the fact that a lot of people no longer engage in the democratic process in whatever form.

I think, as well ' one has to be honest ' that, since 1984 and the government taking over responsibility for LU, if you examine the record, strike action delivered results. When the unions went on strike, usually it was rewarded with a concession. This happened both under Mrs Thatcher's government, John Major's and Tony Blair's.

In the last two and a half years since the Underground has been transferred to my control, we have established a precedent that you do not reward trade unions who go on strike by simply giving them another concession. It will take time for that pattern of negotiation to sink in. I would defend to the death the right of trade unions to go on strike ' the right to strike is the second most important right we have, after the right to vote ' but it is important that it is used only as a last resort. I regret that the three previous governments always caved in and, rather than see Londoners walk to work again, bought short-term political peace whilst spurring long-term industrial anarchy.

Roger Evans (AM): This is not about threatening someone's right to strike; this is about preventing people abusing their position and harming the city while they are doing it. What you find in addition to a low turnout is, very often, that you have a low response. That strike that the RMT had at New Year was supported by, I think, 60% of its workforce; actually, 60% did not support it ' it was supported by 40% ' and, the one the week after, participation was down to 30%. Members seem to be voting with their feet, rather than on the ballot paper, so this is about more, I think, than apathy. What can they do to improve participation?

The Mayor: What could I do to improve participation or what could the unions do? I really just do not know. All of us work relentlessly at an election to persuade people to go out and vote. I do not think, since universal suffrage for local government elections came in, there has ever been a 50% turnout. The highest turnout in my lifetime was in the 1980s ' a time of intense political interest in local government in London ' where we reached about 44-45%. I suspect that that long period in which industrial militancy was always rewarded with another concession created an attitude amongst Tube workers that their union leaders were not doing anything too bad. They were getting more money, at the end of the day. It will take a period of time for them to realise that all that is happening is they are losing a day's pay.

You mention the fact that the substantial majority of RMT members ignored their strike ballot and their union leadership, and came into work; that is quite remarkable. I am not aware of any other industrial dispute in Britain ' certainly in my lifetime ' where a union leadership has called a strike and a majority of their own members have ignored it. If I was advising the RMT ' and I am unlikely to be offered that post by the current executive ' I would say this involves you now re-examining both your political ' with a small `p' ' agenda for your union, and the degree of involvement and participation you are getting from your members.

Roger Evans (AM): You compare it to participation in our elections and, of course, I am sure we would all like to be elected on a ballot of 100% of the people that we represent, but, by and large, that is a nice thing to happen, and low turnout may hurt our vanity and disenfranchise some people, but it is totally different to having the whole of the Tube network brought to its knees by a vote of just over 600 people; that affects hundreds of thousands of people and the city loses money. Is it not time that we had some legislation in place to at least say that you need to get more than half of the people who are eligible to vote to vote for strike action before it happens? That would actually improve participation in the union and give it back to its members, would it not?

The Mayor: I think I am now in favour of saying that a local or general election should be a national holiday ' a bank holiday, if you like ' and there should be a duty to vote, in the Australian sense, so that you actually give people a day off and they are expected to vote. I do not think we would actually want to do that on the Underground, given the frequency of industrial ballots. I suspect that one of the weaknesses may have been that, when Mrs Thatcher's government introduced the concept of postal ballots, rather than workplace ballots, you halved participation. I can see her logic; she thought, by making it a vote that is taken at home, more people would participate and I can understand that. It just has not turned out that way. It might be an idea for the Government to consider actually allowing unions to organise workplace ballots, where at least everyone is passing a ballot box they can see. I have no easy answer to this.

Roger Evans (AM): So you are basically saying that that is not an approach that you would support.

The Mayor: Look at the situation in New York, where Mayor Bloomberg faced a total shutdown of the transit system, in a situation where striking is illegal, the union is fined heavily each day that the strike takes place, and it did not stop it at all. I remember when Edward Heath's government brought in the statutory framework. The moment you started involving the courts, strike activity surged. Suddenly, there were victims. Wicked judges were penalising honest workers. I remember the Shrewsbury Two. We came to the brink of a general strike, because a judge intervened to imprison two picketers. I doubt if you could find a High Court judge who wishes to go back to day-to-day participation in industrial disputes. I think that just is not the way of resolving it.

Roger Evans (AM): Of course, we were not actually asking you for a total ban New York-style, although, effectively that is '

The Mayor: You want that really though, do you not?

Roger Evans (AM): It has prevented a strike since 1982, and I know quite a lot of people who use the transport system every day who would like that, because they are inconvenienced by strikes. What I am asking for is something less than that, which would improve participation. You have spoken before about this being about the elections that the RMT are facing later on this year. How would you advise RMT members to vote in those elections?

The Mayor: I would advise them all to vote ' that would be a big step forward ' but it is up to people inside the RMT to decide whether they are happy with the present leadership and whether they wish to change that. I think nothing would be more counterproductive than for me to announce who the RMT members should or should not be voting for. I think you might actually find that that would work against our interests. It is going to have to be left to members of the RMT to sort out their own union and bring it into the 21st century.

Roger Evans (AM): It is anyone but [Bob] Crow [General Secretary, RMT] really though, is it not?

The Mayor: You could always give up your career here and go into the railways and lead a heroic struggle for the sort of union you want. That is the only way you are going to change the RMT: from below, from amongst your own members.