The deep political roots of the London Underground staff red tabard dispute

The deep political roots of the London Underground staff red tabard dispute

Londoners using the Underground will have noticed station staff wearing a new item of uniform this week – or if they haven’t, the change isn’t working. In line with a recommendation by LondonTravelWatch, the capital’s official transport users’ watchdog, those providing passengers with help and advice have begun wearing bright red vests or tabards to make them more visible. I spotted my first one yesterday at Bank (see photo above).

This seems like a good idea. However, the RMT union, to which many station staff belong, is not happy about it and has decided to ballot its London Underground staff members for “industrial action short of a strike”. The union’s case is that the tabards are essentially a crude fig leaf designed to conceal a reduction in the number of station staff to a level it thinks unacceptable. In its words:

“This attempt at tackling the shortage of station staff by ‘enhancing’ their visibility is a pathetic and detrimental approach by the company that is creating new potential operational safety problems on station platforms, discomfort and overheating of staff due the construction of the red tabards and renders them a target for anti-social behaviour.”

Those puzzled that a quite modest sartorial reform should attract such opprobrium can find an explanation in history. The change was one of a number suggested by London TravelWatch resulting from its review of the effects of a programme of Tube station ticket office closures implemented under Boris Johnson in his second mayoral term.

The review was requested by Johnson’s successor Sadiq Khan in September 2016, shortly after his election, and published near the end of that year. As TravelWatch says, they have since worked with Transport For London to implement their recommendations and most of them have now taken place. The introduction of the red tabards, or vests, as TravelWatch calls them, is one of the last items on the list.

However, the RMT has opposed the entire ticket office closure programme and its associated affects on staff employment and duties from the start. Ructions have continued into Khan’s mayoralty, with strikes taking place and Jeremy Corbyn asking the Labour Mayor to reopen some of the ticket offices closed.

Yet the roots of the struggle over ticket office closures and the deployment of Tube station staff goes back even further, to Ken Livingstone’s time at City Hall. The first London Mayor was also the first to argue that staffed ticket offices on many stations were an anachronism that could not be justified financially. In June 2007 he published closure plans that were more much more extensive than those Johnson initially brought in. The latter even fought the 2008 election opposing them, with a carefully-worded pledge to ensure “there is always a manned ticket office at every station.”

Here’s what Livingstone told the London Assembly at the time he came up with his closure proposals:

“The huge success of Oyster cards has dramatically reduced the demand for tickets from ticket offices, which means London Underground can reduce ticket office opening hours so as to redeploy staff to other parts of the station where they can better assist customers, provide direct assistance and reassurance, and be visible to help address security issues.”

I wrote about all this for the Guardian back in 2010. The bottom line then, as now, was job losses and working conditions. These are legitimate concerns for a trade union and also the context for the RMT’s objection to the red tabards, however absurd some think that is. The implications of what Red Ken set in motion 12 years ago have not played themselves out yet.

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