Podcast episode about the Workmates collective, a rank-and-file initiative on the London Underground using unofficial direct action and workplace assemblies to fight privatisation in the late-1990s/early 2000s.
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- E82: Workmates collective: Andy Littlechild, a former London Underground worker and activist with the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union, speaks to us about Labour’s introduction of privatisation to the Underground, how the Workmates mass meetings began, the Workmates delegate council, the ‘Job-and-Knock’ dispute, and the eventual demise of the ‘Public Private Partnership’
- E82.1 bonus episode: Andy discusses the politics of anarcho-syndicalism and their influence on his organising. He also tells us about a failed attempt by London Underground management to sack him for his activity in the workplace – exclusively for our patreon supporters
- ‘London Underground PPP’ (n.d.), Bank Watch. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- ‘Bring Our Railway Under Public Ownership’, weownit.org.uk. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- Butcher, Louise (2012). ‘London Underground after the PPP, 2007 – ‘, House of Commons Library, 18 January. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- Centre for Public Impact (2018). ‘The London Underground’s failed PPP’, centreforpublicimpact.org, 31 January. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- Dempsey, Noel (2018). ‘Railways: fares statistics’, House of Commons Library, 30 November. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- Drapak, Filip (2009). ‘What can the London Underground tell us about PPPs?’, World Bank Blogs, 25 June. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (2010). Department for Transport: The failure of Metronet, 22 February. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- Kavanagh, Mat (1934). ‘Some Little Known Anarchists: Sam Mainwaring’, Freedom, May. Available at: https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/rfj7pq (accessed 19 October 2023).
- National Audit Office (2004). ‘London Underground PPP: Were they good deals?’, nao.org, 17 June. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- Pidd, Helen (2023). ‘Nobody believes me when I tell them how bad TransPennine Express is’, The Guardian, 11 May. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- Porcher, Simon (2022). ‘A Case Study of the London Underground’s PPP failure’ (31 October). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3597476 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3597476
- Solidarity Federation (2011). Workmates: direct action workplace organising on the London Underground. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- ‘TfL takes over Tube Lines to end Underground privatisation’ (n.d.), Evening Standard. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- Thorpe, Wayne (1989). The Workers Themselves: Revolutionary Syndicalism and International Labour, 1913-1923. Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History. Available at: https://libcom.org/article/workers-themselves-wayne-thorpe (accessed 19 October 2023).
- Wolmar, Christian (2009). ‘Tube PPP reaches the end of the line’, The Guardian, 18 December. (Accessed 19 October 2023).
- Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Jazz Hands, Jamison D. Saltsman and Fernando López Ojeda.
- Episode graphic: reworked image originally by Matt Buck (CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed)
- Edited by Jesse French
- Theme tune is ‘Bella Ciao’, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can purchase it here or stream it here.
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Matt: In the late 1990s, track workers on the London Underground were being faced with outsourcing to private contractors. As part of the wider campaign against it, workers at one depot organised themselves into the Workmates collective: an experiment in rank-and-file control, Workmates organised mass meetings to overcome divisions, and took on-the-job direct action to break the UK’s strict anti-strike laws. This is Working Class History.
Matt: Before we get started, just a reminder that our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes without ads, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. For example, our patreon supporters can listen to an exclusive bonus episode now, where our guest, Andy Littlechild, discusses his anarcho-syndicalist politics and tells us about one of the times management tried to sack him for workplace organising. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
People who have listened to our show for a long time may remember that our episode 5 was about rank-and-file workers’ organising on the London Underground. But like all our earlier episodes, it was basically raw audio from our interview, so the sound quality was pretty bad and there was no narrative to fill in any gaps, explain context and pull the story together. In addition to producing new podcast episodes, we are also going back over our earliest episodes to re-edit and release them in the new, narrative format we use for all of our later episodes. So this is one of our improved and rereleased episodes, which has additional narrative with better quality audio to explain things more clearly and tell the story in a more cohesive way. So whether you listened to that early episode or not, we hope you enjoy this one.
For this episode, we spoke to Andy Littlechild, a former track chargehand who at the time we interviewed him was a National Executive Committee member for the London Transport Region of the Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers’ Union (RMT). We say ‘former’ because since we first released the episode, Andy has retired from his job on the London Underground. So we wanted to redo this episode not just to get his experiences out there for others to learn from, but also because he’s such a massively respected workplace activist and we wanted the opportunity to wish him well. So, much love to you, Andy, and all the best. We hope you enjoy your well-earned retirement!
When we met up with Andy, it was to talk about London Underground workers’ resistance to a privatisation scheme in the late-nineties and early 2000s called the Public-Private Partnership, otherwise known as PPP. However, as Andy explained, London Underground had had plans to increase their use of outsourcing and privatisation since the early 1990s.
Andy Littlechild: The background goes way back to a big corporate shake-up on London Underground called the ‘Company Plan’. Amongst other things, what they did there was they brought in agencies and casualised labour to work on the track. The first company was called Finchpalm. The union didn’t react to it and took a view that it wasn’t a threat but within a year or two, more and more work was being done by Finchpalm. Typically, they didn’t join the union and they were pretty badly exploited in the way they were treated.
There was some strike action and we held out a bit but fundamentally the Company Plan came in probably with some modifications, some compromises, but it was seen as a defeat by the members and the members felt let down by the RMT at the time. Various other bits and pieces. They got rid of Paybill, so we lost a lot of members because the company cancelled collecting subs from the RMT. They kept it for the other unions but not for us. And it took us a long time to get those members back. And the legacy of the Company Plan hung over into the PPP which started in the very late 1990s/early 2000s
In reality, the union should have stopped that from happening in the first instance because one, it wouldn’t have undermined the union but more importantly, all of those workers would have been employed by London Underground because the work needed to be done with a decent contract, terms and conditions and union rights but that’s how it happened. Finchpalm got in the door and then they proliferated everywhere but there were several changes as they were made to compete for contracts where the cheapest bid wins and all of that. Around about this time, we ended up with another outfit and at Lillie Bridge Depot, there was 170-odd full-time staff and it fluctuates between 200 and 300 and, at times, up to 800 self-employed and agency workers. That’s what the situation was at the time that Workmates was set up.
Just one thing to note and that is, in recent years London Underground approached the RMT and said would you like us now to reinstate Paybill but we told them we’re fine as we are, we take care of our own affairs now, we don’t use Paybill.
Matt: The changes being brought in by management obviously gave no thought to the conditions faced by workers. For instance, the kind of work carried out by track maintenance workers like Andy was (and still is) extremely physically demanding, as he explained during our interview.
Andy Littlechild: On London Underground, the track has to be patrolled and running repairs have to be done on a nightly basis. We start work when the trains have stopped running and they’ve cleared all the passengers out. They then turn the traction current off on the track and we go down to work after all the safety checks have been performed to make sure the track is dead. We typically get on the track about 1 o’clock in the morning and we’re normally there until 4 o’clock or half-past four but sometimes later, depending on where you’re working or how far away from train depots you are because that affects how much time you get on the track.
During that time, there are very short breaks to just have a drink of water. You’ve got to go at it hammer and tongs. It’s three and a half or four hours’ work but at a real heavy, fast pace. In the tunnels, it’s hot and dusty. The tools we use are very loud, air-powered concrete breakers. You’ve got stuff jacked up everywhere with people digging, people breaking out sleepers, people shovelling up the ballast to remove any broken up concrete. It’s like being in a battle. That’s what it’s like. It’s hot and you come out covered in dust, and filth, and sweat and grease.
Matt: The plans for PPP were announced in the latter half of the decade supposedly as an alternative to privatisation. But, in reality, privatisation was exactly what it was; just in parts rather than wholesale.
Andy Littlechild: It was New Labour that actually privatised the infrastructure on London Underground. So they left the stations and the trains and everything supporting those in the public sector, and they privatised track, signals, train maintenance and all of the engineering functions and the supports, you know, the office-based supports, was all privatised into two companies. One called Metronet, which ended up with two-thirds of the infrastructure, and a smaller company called Tube Lines consortium, that ended up with one-third.
Of all the things that the company do, trying to cut costs is a big driver and attacking workers’ rights and the function of the union is a big aspect of that in terms of ongoing cuts. By employing agency staff and staff who were self-employed under this bogus self-employment thing, you get a situation where you’ve got a non-unionised workforce who not only have no one to negotiate on their behalf for pay and conditions but they’re sackable at a moment’s notice.
Matt: Unlike permanent employees, agency workers have far fewer legal rights. The same goes for workers labelled as “self-employed” contractors, even though in many cases in a legal sense they should technically be recognised as employees. Fake self-employment is a common tactic of employers to get round employment law in the UK, and in many other countries.
Andy Littlechild: It enables you, as a company, to get around having to have some loyalty towards people who you’re putting out to work of a day and a night. Also by employing them that way, they’re very much less likely to join the union which means you diminish the strength of the union. If you can remove the union from the equation, it means that you can have free rein to bring in whatever changes and cuts that you want to bring in.
In terms of privatising the infrastructure on the London Underground, which they did do… I don’t know if I’m being cynical here but a big part of it was kicking back money to their buddies and friends in big business. Again, it was hoped that it would save money through taking on the union and taking on the staff and bringing in efficiencies, downsizing and all these different terms they have for it in order to save money that way. It was also part of a political and a philosophical ethos of getting rid of state-run and national-run industries and opening everything up to the private sector.
Andy Littlechild: Each one was a consortium. Metronet and Tube Lines were comprised of different construction type firms, like WS Atkins, Thames Water, Bombardier, Balfour Beatty. It was a massive rinsing operation where instead of procuring materials and equipment and tools, they’d put it through these parent companies that made up the consortium. There was all that sort of rinsing going on but at a much higher cost. The main thing was that the whole time was about trying to rip off the government, the taxpayer, the travelling public and the workforce, where they could. It was just like a continual reorganisation and rewiring of different things they tried to do, like cut out jobs. That’s what it was really. That was the main focus of these private companies, these consortiums. It seemed to be that they were more interested in doing that than they were in running the railway. Running the railway was secondary to what they were there to do primarily which was to get their hands in the till. That’s how it seemed to us and I think that’s pretty much what it was. Obviously, it couldn’t cope with that and so eventually, they ran out of money and they went broke.
Matt: Privatisation has often been promoted by its supporters as a way of not just reducing state spending but also improving services and reducing ticket prices. However, anyone who’s taken a train in the UK recently could tell you that that’s not the case. Rail fares in the UK are the highest in Europe and have gone up by at least 20% in real terms since the railways were privatised. The main privatised railway infrastructure firm, Railtrack, went into administration in 2001 (just seven years after it was founded) and had to effectively be re-nationalised as Network Rail. In the last five years, five rail lines have been renationalised because of things like unreliable services, the collapse of parent companies and attempted tax fraud. And one of those lines, the Trans Pennine Express, was actually so unreliable that it was cancelling almost a quarter of its trains in the months leading up to being renationalised in May 2023.
And, alongside failing to improve services, privatisation also comes with attempts by bosses to tear up workers’ terms and conditions. But despite all these problems, there was initially a bit of reluctance from some workers to resist it.
Andly Littlechild: People brought up the Company Plan fiasco then. You know, were we really going to fight this Public Private Partnership when we did so badly with the Company Plan. They still bring it up occasionally.
Matt: There was also the issue Andy mentioned over the division created by management between permanently employed staff (who were mostly in the union) and those employed via an agency or with self-employed status (who weren’t union members). But, as Andy explains here, he made use of guidelines put out by ACAS, which is the government advisory service that mediates industrial disputes. Specifically, he took the guidelines that allow union reps paid time off to do union duties during work time (otherwise known as ‘facility time’) and used it for the benefit of all workers at his depot, regardless of union affiliation.
Andy Littlechild [07:19]: What we used to do at Lillie Bridge was when we had meetings with management, we used to enact the ACAS guidelines that say that you should have the facility time to report back to your members following meetings.
What we’d typically do is we’d use that and we would have a meeting within a week or two of the meeting with management. We had the minutes printed up and we’d often distribute them around, so people could follow through the minutes. We used to have everyone in the canteen, whether they were union members or not, or whether they worked for London Underground, or whether they were agency or contractors.
Matt: Some of Andy’s fellow union members weren’t always keen on having non-union workers participate in meetings. And many union members are often sceptical in general of agency workers, who are seen by some as undercutting permanent workers’ conditions.
Andy Littlechild: Some of the London Underground members weren’t keen on this but I just used to explain to them, ‘These are our workmates. The war is against people in suits – overalls versus suits – and not overalls versus overalls.’ Just to simplify it. I wouldn’t put them out and then what happened was Bob Crow came down to the depot during the PPP dispute when we were fighting it.
He came down to talk to us and some of the members approached him and said, ‘Bob, there are contractors in here. We don’t want them in here. To give him his due, Bob told them the same thing and so they stayed in.
Matt: Bob Crow was the leader of the RMT at the time. As Andy explained, with Bob Crow’s support, the agency staff and contractors continued to attend workplace meetings. And Andy’s strategy was soon proven to be the right one as London Underground workers began to fight back against plans to contract out work via PPP.
Andy Littlechild: The proof of the pudding was seen when we got into strike action against the PPP in the very early days.
This was around 1998/9. What happened was we had a number of our own members coming to work during the strike but not one of the agency guys came in and crossed the picket line. Some of them in Kent, and Wales and in Doncaster had previously been miners and they basically, they went around their work colleagues, or other agency workers, saying, ‘You’re not crossing a picket line.’
Matt: Just to underline how significant this was, it’s important to point out that not only were these workers not in the union officially engaged in the dispute but, as agency workers and contractors, they wouldn’t have had any legal protection at all in case of dismissal.
Yeah, I didn’t shrink back from pointing that out to people [laughter]. It completely changed the whole feeling of it all. All of that stuff they said about not wanting them in their meetings, no one could.I think, generally, it did shift people as well.
Matt: So the mass meetings continued with RMT reps using their official credentials to benefit all workers and acting accountable to the decisions of those meetings. And out of those early struggles against PPP, the Workmates delegate council began to emerge.
Andy Littlechild: This is why it came about because we then embarked on a series of strikes against privatisation. Of course, I used to point out to everyone, including the agency guys, that the Company Plan was in no one’s interest and it would be worse for the agency guys too. But, you know, we worked cheek by jowl with each other down the track, so we knew each other and that solidarity was there as well. We were fighting PPP (Public Private Partnership) and, at some point, we had London Underground disputes over pay.
So, the obvious question was, we were getting all this solidarity back but it was solidarity from these agency and self-employed workers, our mates, but the union wasn’t really in the position to do anything for them. Workmates was set up to bond the solidarity and to give a bit of structure but then also to explore ways that the solidarity could be returned to the agency guys.
First of all, the term ‘Workmates’ was used because that’s what we were. That’s why that was the term that was used because it was the most straightforward. That’s how the name came about. We first started organising in that fashion so that the workforce would be telling us what they wanted us to do. When we started to get more organised, that’s when we set up the council. Track work is done in gangs and each bit of work you do is a project. We do heavy maintenance and renewals and not running repairs and inspections. We’re the heavy maintenance and renewal section, so it’s all ongoing work and typically, a gang runs that site until completion. It could be six months or it could be a year and a half. People constitute what they see as a gang in different ways. It could be the people you work with all the time or it could be, if you’re travelling in a van from wherever, the guys you travel in with. We let people determine what their gang was and how they considered their gang to be and then elect to nominate someone to sit on the council. The council was made up and, at one point, I think we had 16 delegates. We made sure that the contractors made use of this because, in a sense, we had some London Underground staff as well but it was easier, because of the RMT, to represent them. It was more important that the contractors and the agency staff had delegates so that their voice was more present.
Matt: Workmates was a great example of rank-and-file democratic practice. As Andy said, the Workmates council was made up of 16 delegates, each representing a different gang. Gang size varied from around 10ish to 20-odd, which meant hundreds of workers (the majority of them contractors and agency staff) were represented on the council where otherwise they would have had no means of organisation at all.
Leaflets were given out to different gangs encouraging them to join the delegate council. The leaflets also included instructions on how to elect a delegate and what a delegate does, explaining that “Gang delegates do not speak for themselves, but on the mandate given to them by their gang. Delegates report back to the gang, and are instantly recallable.” If you’d like to see some of the Workmates leaflets, we’ve got images of them on the webpage for this episode; link in the show notes.
As a final flourish, Andy also had little badges made up with ‘Workmates’ written across a red and black background, a reference to the flag of anarcho-syndicalism, which is a form of anarchist politics applied to the labour movement. Anarcho-syndicalism was the main political current motivating workers during the Spanish civil war of 1936-9, which we talk about in our episodes 39-40. We go into more detail about what anarcho-syndicalism is and its influence on Andy’s politics and activism in our bonus episode. Available exclusively for our supporters on patreon.
Despite Workmates operating outside of their control, the RMT were still glad to see rail workers getting organised who were usually outside their remit.
Andy Littlechild: It was supportive because what it did, this was a grade of workers, like track workers, who were always seen as not being fantastic at taking strike action. However, there was this example over in West London where it was rock solid and that was used not by me but other people in meetings when we were organising strike action. It was often referenced and people said, ‘Down at Lillie Bridge, they’ve even got the contractors coming out, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get your members out, who work on stations or trains.’
And people used to say “We’ve heard that you’ve organised a soviet down at Lillie Bridge”, that Lillie Bridge is run as a soviet! So it did get around and it’s been mentioned in things that have been written about the PPP dispute, it’s been referenced and stuff as well, what we did at Lillie Bridge. And it also gave us a reputation with management, which was actually quite good. We were known as “the Lion’s Den”, one of them said to us.
Matt: This joke about Lillie Bridge being run as a soviet refers to the Russian revolution and the workers’ councils that were set up by workers to collectively take over the running of society, which were known as soviets (and were the subject of the revolutionary slogan, “All Power to the Soviets!”).
As for Workmates, the delegate council was up and running for about 18 months from 1999-2001. While the mass meetings were held regularly, the delegate council mostly met on special occasions, such as if management attempted to introduce new working practices. So as well as the ongoing struggles against privatisation, Workmates was involved in a number of other disputes, the biggest probably being against management’s attempt to end a practice called ‘Job and Knock’.
Andy Littlechild: ‘Job and Knock’ is something that is widespread in the industry. What it means is you get the work that you’ve been allocated for the day done and then you go home [laughter]. It’s something that is unofficial, it’s not something that is sanctioned officially by management. However, it’s often in their favour because they know the work is getting done and they’re keeping the staff happy by not really seeing that they’ve gone home early. That’s the way it’s always been on the London Underground pretty much everywhere. That’s what ‘Job and Knock’ is. What happened was the departmental, top manager in Trackforce was studying at university to get his business dissertation and he was looking at a fad management way of working where, in their words, ‘you don’t work harder, you just work smarter.’ That’s what they try and fool you with but really, it’s just to get more work out of you.
He brought in some consultants who were given a different name. They weren’t called consultants but they were. They came down and basically, they watched how we did our work, they talked to members of the gang and tried to smooth out all of the down-time and keep more people working all of the time to get more work done.
While he was doing that to try and speed up the work, he was also doing his own private, personal business dissertation to get a qualification of whatever sort – some sort of degree or something. He used his own workplace and what he was doing with the department as the case study. What it also involved was the removal of ‘Job and Knock’ because this approach required intensive briefings before you went out to work. They had these rooms built called ‘briefing rooms’. None of this stuff got used for very long, by the way. It was like a flash in the pan because he was doing his thing. He built these briefing rooms where you were briefed before you went out to work which was all well and good. You would speed the work up while you were at work by taking on board the recommendations of the consultancy of how you streamlined the work to keep people working more of the time and less down points where only one person could do something. At the end, you came back to the depot and you had a debrief where you talked about the next night’s work and planned it in detail which was something we had never done and there was no need to do it. It was all part of his ‘brave new world’. That removed ‘Job and Knock’ because all of the gang had to come back and sit there until half six in the morning talking about the job which none of us were overly interested in [laughter]. Because the work that we did, you didn’t really want to come back and sit in a depot after being down the tunnel.
There were loads of things that we used to do that were common practice but weren’t necessarily by the rules. We were always being picked up on these things by management, especially if something went wrong. They would ask you, ‘How did this happen?’ and then you told them. Likewise, anything that was in the rules that we weren’t doing, they loved us doing it as long as nothing went wrong because it sped the job up. But, if something went wrong, then you’d find yourself being disciplined for not doing it.
All this was going on and people were getting in trouble when some mishap occurred. I decided to tackle it around the same time they were ending ‘Job and Knock’. I made a long list of all the various things that we all knew were going on on the track that you could potentially get in trouble for. I said, ‘We need to work to the actual procedures and policies. Would people like me to print these up as an aide-memoire for things to do and not to do?’ It was agreed that that should be done.
The plan was that I was going to distribute that the following night and also we were going to pull the Workmates’ Council together the following night to make sure that it was supported by the gangs. That was the plan. However, there was a whole rake of things, like not having a first-aider on site which was against the rules. Obviously, if you needed to use the toilet, you weren’t supposed to actually piss on the track. You’re supposed to go back and use the toilet on the station, and so on and so forth. All of those things were discussed and were going to be hammered out the following night and the council was going to support that. However, the staff and all the workforce decided to take matters into their own hands [laughter] and started that night which was not the plan.
It started off its own bat. The interesting thing was I was in charge of a worksite that night and my mate, who happened to be one of the only other anarchists working on track and was in my gang, pointed out that we didn’t have a first-aider on the site [laughter]. So I was in charge of the job and so I went through the procedures. I phoned up the office and told them and the supervisor said, ‘Can you be covered by the station’s supervisor because sometimes there’s a provision for that?’ I said, ‘No because we’re too far down the tunnel’ which is something that means that can’t happen. The station supervisor can’t come if you’re too far down the tunnel because they’ve also got to cover the station, so they can’t be everywhere. The supervisor then said, ‘Can you see if the gang working a few stops up have got a second first-aider and you can get him over? Tell him that I said that he can buy-in.’ We had to go off the track and then try and get hold of them. It just went on all night and we ended up not doing any work. It kicked off like this all over the place, in various different guises, on the first night [laughter]. It just broke out everywhere and it carried on for a couple of days.
Matt: Andy and his workmates basically caused havoc by just following the rules. They also made use of this tactic, better known as a ‘work-to-rule’, in other creative ways as well.
Andy Littlechild: Another thing that was quite common was that if you’re on the track for four hours, at some point, the likelihood is you’re going to need to go to the toilet. It is common practice, when you are miles down the track, that you don’t go back to the toilet and you just go in the ballast. Staff weren’t willing to do that because you are supposed to go back and use the toilet but the difficulty there is you can only go on a track and be unaccompanied if you are a trained protection master which means you understand all of the safety limits where you’re working and where the live current sections may be and all of that. Anyone who goes back, unless they’re a protection master, needs to be accompanied by a protection master.
But then the problem is if there’s only one protection master, then that leaves the gang without a protection master while, say, Fred goes to the toilet. That’s what happened. A member of the gang would say, ‘I want to go and use the toilet,’ and the chargehand would say, ‘Crack on.’ They would then say, ‘I need the protection master to go back with me,’ so you would say, ‘Frank, can you go back with Paul.’ They would be getting ready to walk up the track and then the gang would say, ‘Hang on a minute. You can’t leave us on the track without Frank because he’s a protection master.’ The chargehand would say, ‘Fuck it! Okay, everyone back to the platform,’ and the whole gang would have to up sticks and move back to the platform while someone went to the toilet. They went back down the tunnel again to resume work and then half an hour later, someone else wanted to go to the toilet and they had to repeat the process over again.
That went on at a couple of sites and after two days, productivity dropped and it was dropping down below 80% of what we’d normally do. The manager called me and one of the other reps into the office and said, ‘We all know what’s going on here. Our productivity is nosediving.’ He blamed another manager for having the idea of bringing us back in the morning and doing these debriefings [laughter]. He said, ‘It wasn’t actually my idea. It was this other manager.’ He said that he would assure us that it was going to stop. In other words, without saying it, ‘Job and Knock’ would be reinstated which I reported back to the canteen and everyone was very happy. I think that was on the third shift and then people started just getting back to how things were before.
Matt: Swift direct action from the rank and file meant that management’s plan to end ‘Job and Knock’ had been defeated. But whether the events made it into their manager’s business studies dissertation remains shrouded in mystery.
Andy Littlechild: He may have chosen to omit that part of it because I don’t think it would have done him much favour with his examiners.
Matt: The Workmates collective showed that, when organised, agency workers and contractors were willing to show solidarity with their directly employed counterparts on the London Underground. As a result, directly employed staff started to return the favour.
Andy Littlechild: With all this going on and all the support that we’d been having, the dispute over Job & Knock affected everyone and so everyone had a stake in it but with a lot of the disputes that we were in, we were getting support from the contractors and the agency workers. They weren’t even their disputes. You could say that PPP (the privatisation of the tube) would affect them too but they actually came out and showed solidarity in our pay disputes as well. So when their company came to them to make some quite drastic changes to their rate of pay and their money was going to be dropped down, I put it to a meeting that this was completely out of order. I asked how people felt about supporting the contractors. The view from across the piece was that there would be an overtime ban.
Matt: However, Andy and his fellow workers made one error, which ultimately decided the fate of this particular dispute.
Andy Littlechild: What happened was we made one blunder which meant that we didn’t have something in place for if the contractors and agency staff were threatened by the management. On the first night back, after we made this decision, it got back to the management that no one was going to be working overtime. What the contract firm did was send in their most senior supervisor who dealt with the guys the next night. He stood by the booking on desk in their booking on point in the depot with a very simple question. He said, ‘Are you coming to work on the weekend or aren’t you?’
In hindsight, we should have said, ‘Anyone who is threatened, then we’ll down tools,’ or whatever it was we decided but we didn’t have that in place. We didn’t see this coming. They were booking on and any of them who said that they weren’t working overtime were just told, ‘You can go home now. You’re sacked.’ With that, we experienced a massive defeat and the contractors, en masse, signed up to do the overtime because they had no choice in the matter. We hadn’t put any protection around them because we didn’t see it coming. Some of the London Underground staff were in a much more safe and privileged position and still refused to do the overtime in protest.
Matt: It was after this dispute that the Workmates council started to wind down.
Andy Littlechild: It didn’t come to an end where it just stopped. The delegates’ council sort of withered away, I think, partly because of the defeat we had over the changes to the contractors’ terms and conditions and with the overtime ban that went wrong. But it wasn’t just that. There was also a high turnover amongst the contractors with them either being laid off or being moved. Because of the high turnover, it was not easy to keep it going forever.
The council came to an end by just fizzling out but we still kept Workmates, in a larger sense, going and it’s still going to this day, in some respects. When we advertise our meetings in the depot, they’re still Workmates’ meetings. In that respect, it’s still going. It had a heyday when it was functioning really well and it’s not there anymore but we still have the same principles and meetings are open to everyone. The reps report back on stuff relating to contractors and to staff and everyone there is encouraged to speak their mind and ask questions. We also seek a view from everyone on what they want us to do. In that respect, it’s still going. When it was more highly organised, there were Workmates’ cards, badges and stuff like that. We don’t really use those anymore, so it’s much more low key. The workforce is all considered to be Workmates and that feeling is still there.
Matt: This feeling of solidarity and willingness to respect each other’s disputes whatever your terms of employment was something that stuck with a lot of the people who got involved in Workmates even after Workmates eventually wound down.
Andy Littlechild: In a real concrete way, there were some of the agency staff and self-employed guys, who used to work at Lillie Bridge and went through this, who were then transferred to work on the lines. They ended up on the Victoria Line on the north end. We got into a London Underground pay dispute and the whole gang of London Underground staff came in and broke their own strike. It wasn’t even the dispute of the contractors, who used to work at Lillie Bridge Depot, it wasn’t even their dispute and they didn’t have anything to gain out of it [laughter] but didn’t come into work when their London Underground counterparts, whose dispute it was, came in.
I think Workmates has made the contractors feel that they can fight. There were lots of daily battles that we had with management over health and safety where people were being asked to do things that weren’t safe. The contractors developed the confidence to refuse to do it because they’ve still got the right to refuse to work on the grounds of health and safety. We’d always support them but they would be willing to fight and before, they wouldn’t. They had to be coaxed into it. They were much more pugnacious and they would have a go.
I think that the way that Lillie Bridge was so solid during the PPP dispute, which involved the Workmates’ way of organising there, did affect the PPP dispute, especially on track. It also stiffened up other grades on London Underground because it was an all grades’ dispute. I think it did play a role in firming up the whole of the RMT actually in the way that we fought the PPP. It did play a role. I wouldn’t try and over-egg it and say that it was bigger than it was but it was definitely there because it was like a knock-on effect. If you can firm up the track depot, then you can firm up the track grades. Then the other grades, like drivers, station staff, signals and fleet maintainers, see that the track grades are fighting and so then they’re encouraged. It was like a virtuous circle going upwards that helped out.
Matt: And with that broader willingness to fight across the London Underground, it’s no surprise that the struggle against privatisation on the tube continued after Workmates.
It continued on and we wrung a whole load of concessions out of London Underground, who were our employers until we got TUPE’d over to Metronet and Tube Lines.
Matt: TUPE here stands for Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) which, basically, is a set of laws that are supposed to protect your rights if your employment is transferred from one employer to another. For instance, if you work for a service that’s being privatised and your employer changes from the local government to a private company, TUPE is supposed to mean that you keep the same terms and conditions as before, but unfortunately it’s a very weak set of laws.
Andy Littlechild: The main thing was called the Jobs For Life deal which was a bolt-on to TUPE. So this Jobs For Life deal was an addition to TUPE which strengthened it but also strengthened all of our agreements. It also protected our pensions and everything else. We managed to force things around job numbers. Normally, are only a matter for consultation on health and safety but we got them to agree they were a matter for negotiation. There’s a fantastic document that we took over into privatisation with us.
It’s not just that. We won a lot of concessions to defend ourselves with but we also went in there with a fighting spirit and that carried us through until we got renationalised. The funny thing was that when we came back into London Underground, we managed to hold onto a lot of stuff that the uniform side had lost while we were privatised. So we came back with superior terms and conditions to our London Underground counterparts that stayed in the public sector. We’ve got better paternity leave and rights to be represented at a fact-finding and on London Underground, they haven’t got that. In Metronet, we managed to win that, hang on to it and we’ve still got it because it got TUPE’d back into London Underground from Metronet. It’s been carried over by TUPE. It’s bits and pieces like that. That’s what happened with the PPP dispute until Metronet, and more recently Tube Lines, went belly up and we all got renationalised.
Matt: In the end, PPP turned out to be an absolute policy disaster. While the consortiums involved received contracts worth billions of pounds and were supposed to last 30 years, Tube Lines only lasted seven years and Metronet went bust after just four. Not only were they unable to complete their contracts, but the bill for their failures were all picked up by the public: losses from Metronet’s poor financial control were put at somewhere between £170-£410 million; in 2010, the local government body, Transport for London, bought out company shares in Tube Lines, paying £310 million and then, the following year, acquired almost all of Tube Lines’ debt to the tune of £1.3 billion. All of this was on top of the £2 billion paid by the government to cover its guarantee to Metronet’s creditors and cover its administration costs.
But beyond just exposing the failures of tube privatisation, the experience of resistance to the scheme also contains many lessons for workers everywhere, like the way Andy and his colleagues ignored the anti-strike laws and took swift direct action to win disputes quickly.
Andy Littlechild: That’s very true. You can do it pretty much straight away. Once you’ve got agreement amongst your workmates and you’ve got that ability to have that discussion and reach that agreement, you can then do it pretty much as soon as you want to. Obviously, there are lots of things you’ve got to do to protect yourself. You don’t want management to be able to pick people out and stuff like that, so you need to be mindful of that. If you’ve catered for all of the things that could go wrong and force it through, you can apply your work-to-rule or your strike pretty much immediately without having to go through all of those measures.
Fundamentally, those measures are there to put you off or make it difficult for you to take action to defend yourself and to take the steam out of it by the time you’ve eventually gone through those hoops and hurdles. Sometimes the feeling has gone and people have started to accommodate themselves to what management is doing and it becomes normalised. It prevents that from happening if you can take action immediately. I think the lead time now for taking action is probably about five weeks if you go through all the legal niceties.
Matt: And, more broadly, the Workmates experience showed the value of bringing workers in a workplace together, regardless of what kind of contracts they’re on.
Andy Littlechild: Yeah, I think it’s relevant in terms of feeling stronger if other people are thinking about issues that happen to your work or that management is doing and then you start making decisions to resist them. It did have some long-term benefits for the contractors who work on the Underground and, in terms of other people who work in industries where they’ve not got a union, I’d say that it’s the most obvious and logical place to start because they will control their own disputes. They all know what the issues are that they’re facing, whether they’re working in the gig economy, or in catering, or wherever they might be.
You obviously have to do it carefully because you want to filter out any stooges or management spies. It’s actually something that’s very natural and you don’t have to have a deep, philosophical grounding in trade unionism or politics to do it, even though that’s helpful. It’s just about basic human solidarity between you and your workmates and knowing that you’ve got more in common with each other than you have with your boss. It’s just about looking at the issues you’ve got in a workplace and if you’ve got a mechanism where you can do that and discuss things, make joint decisions and you’ve got the will to fight, then you’re in with a chance of defending yourselves and maybe even pushing your interests forward.
Matt: That’s all we’ve got time for today. As always, we’ve got more information, sources and links on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes.
If you’d like to hear more from Andy, check out our bonus episode where he talks about the influence of anarcho-syndicalism on his politics and workplace activism. He also tells us a great story about how he and his colleagues resisted management attempts to sack him for union organising.
It is only support from you, our listeners, which allows us to make these podcasts. So if you appreciate our work please do think about joining us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. In return for your support, you get early access to content, as well as ad-free episodes, exclusive bonus content, discounted merch, and more. And if you can’t spare the cash, absolutely no problem, please just tell your friends about this podcast and give us a five-star review on your favourite podcast app.
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Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can buy it or stream it on the links in the show notes.
This episode was edited by Jesse French.
Anyway, that’s it for today. Hope you enjoyed the episode, and thanks for listening.