Last year managers at Metronet, one of the contractors in charge of track maintenance on the London Underground, tried to sack Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) rep Andy Littlechild. Managers seized on obsolete health and safety regulations which apparently enforced the wearing of hard hats at all times and targeted Andy, a track worker at Metronet and a Safety Rep for 12 years. It was a blatant attempt by Metronet to break the RMT by attacking its reps, yet another example of how regulations that claim to protect workers can be used against them.
Andy helped build the unique organising model that Metronet workers have, in which lay reps - rather than fulltime union officials – run the show and all members are encouraged to take an interest in their own organisation. Rank and file members send delegations to deal with management on issues which affect them, giving them strength that other unionised workers lack, and has contributed to numerous victories since privatisation from London Underground (LUL).
Andy also helped organise the Workmates Council, which brought together Metronet employees and agency staff in the same organisation, and laid the foundations for RMT’s successful campaigns to stop management from devaluing Metronet staff’s pensions by 10% and halt mass job cuts; and last April, to open up the Transport for London (TfL) pension scheme, free travel on TfL and subsidised travel on Network Rail to new starters, all previously denied to them by Metronet.
With LUL bringing Metronet back in-house, Andy’s victimisation represented part of an effort by its managers to break the union. In response, a 48-hour strike was organised to coincide with a city-wide bus strike, and management caved in. Andy was disciplined, but after appeal his punishment was reduced to a still undeserved slap on the wrist, and the planned strike was cancelled. One condition of management’s settlement with the union was that no one claimed that Metronet “caved in”, but Catalyst did not sign that agreement.
Now that Metronet is back in-house, its workers are looking to roll their organising model out to the rest of the RMT on the Underground. During the transfer to LUL, the union leadership’s agenda prioritised facilitating the move over the defence of its workers’ terms and conditions, and subsequently, ballots on industrial action were dropped. Nowadays, Metronet activists compete with other sections of the RMT for representation In LUL. Even good union leaders have to account for the union’s corporate interests, often at the expense of their own members’ interests, and the Metronet organising model will not suffice without a union that defends workers above all else.