As we in Canada (and especially Toronto) face the painful and seemingly never-ending process of developing actual projects for public transit expansion, the drumbeat of calls for privatization in its various forms is inescapably present. Indeed, there is a failure even to fund properly the existing public transit network in Toronto and other Canadian cities. The Light Rail Transit (LRT) network proposed for Toronto, as part of the plan of the provincial government agency Metrolinx, has integrated a Public Private Partnership (P3) structure for a 30 year maintenance contract on the new light rail lines on the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission). New projects associated with the federal government and the Ontario provincial governments have “alternative funding mechanisms” (AFM), the term being invoked for P3s and privatization (given the miserable record of P3s so far).
With a series of elections pending and an ongoing ferment about transit issues, a number of commentators featured in the local Toronto media, for example, have been touting the wondrous powers of private ownership to help deal with the fiscal woes associated with current transit constraints in Canada’s largest city.
But if there ever was an instructive set of lessons to teach us why privatization and, in particular, P3s are decidedly not a solution to the challenge of paying for, planning and operating and maintaining public transit, one can find it in the recent book, Plundering London Underground: New Labour, Private Capital and Public Service, 1997-2010 (London: Merlin Press, 2013, 240pp), by Janine Booth. In it, the writer – an activist with the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transit Workers) – details the outrageous failure of the farming out of London’s fabled underground transit system’s maintenance and construction work to private corporations.
In the process, Booth provides a panoramic narrative of the complex interaction between the political, economic, social and technical elements that shape the operation of London’s underground public transit system, always in the context of history and class struggle. And, in the rather tawdry story of the ultimately failed experiment with P3s, she deconstructs the real structures and forces underlying the massive rip-off by corporate consortia of public resources, in collaboration with a Labour Party leadership and bureaucracy that was desperate to ingratiate itself with private capital.
Yet, in all of this, there is the remarkable and continuing opposition of the RMT and other unionized workers (along with Booth’s own decidedly socialist and democratic alternative vision for public transit). This is part of an emerging global movement for free public transit, including the Free and Accessible Transit Campaign in Toronto.
Booth frames her argument in terms of the key factors that shape the problems of the London underground. They include: who owns the subway system (Booth argues that public ownership is central to
the health of public transit); how it is controlled (local control works best); how it is funded (continuous adequate public funding is necessary); how its elements
are integrated (unification is key); and the ethos (which underlies how it is operated – as a public service or a
business, with the former being of critical importance). A corollary is that one can’t expect public transit to be a money-making proposition – it will always require funding from governments.
In all of these areas, the historical record of the London underground transit has been mixed, with a decided turn for the worse in the Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990), John Major (1990-1997), New Labour eras. This shaped the debate over P3s in London.
Tracing the history of the London underground from its origins as a private company in 1863 (the first in the world), the narrative identifies a decline in transit investment beginning in the 1950s, rebounding in the mid-1960s, but declining again in the latter 1970s, with cuts to capital spending, lack of proper renewal of old equipment, and similar signs of limited investment.
The neoliberal Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher of the 1980s brought dramatic funding cuts (from £190-million in 1984 to £95-million in 1987),
along with plans to privatize the publicly-owned underground transit network. This effort was challenged by the Greater London Council (GLC),
led by Ken Livingstone, in his most radical phase. The GLC argued for lower fares and other improvements. But Thatcher took the tubes out of the control of the London city government and soon liquidated the GLC itself.
The funding cuts over the period of Tory rule, left the transit system severely short of funds – at ‘starvation’ levels. The Conservatives tried a series of privatization moves, such as mandating that the tubes operate like a private business and tender operations to private contractors. In 1992, they introduced a program of Private Funding Initiatives (PFI), which were precursors for the P3 (public-private-partnership) model that Labour adopted, only on a more limited scale [Ed.: see John Loxley on P3s]. These involved having a private company taking on the task of building, for example a public hospital, with the government then leasing back the building over a period of years to pay for the building and, of course, a significant profit for the P3. They included projects to build and maintain new trains on one line; provide power; introduction of the ‘Prestige’ smartcard ticketing system, and others.
When applied to London Transit, it ended up creating similar problems that were to plague Labour’s scheme: botched deadlines, ongoing safety and maintenance glitches and cost overruns.
In the 1997 general election, the Conservatives argued for privatizing parts of the tubes, while Tony Blair’s New Labour defended the model of P3s, which it claimed would keep London transit in public
hands, and only use the private sector for needed funding. An anecdote that Booth cites, described how the actress Glenda Jackson – now a Labour MP – used scissors to cut a rubber tube, in the
general election, claiming that this is what the Tories would do to the underground with their privatization schemes. This act ended up being highly ironic because it is was precisely what the Labour government would end up doing.
Planning, Testing and Implementing the P3 Scheme
New Labour was committed to P3s as a core element of their transit policy. As Guardian columnist
Victor Keegan was quoted: “In opposition Labour’s view was clear. PFI stank. In power, Labour embraced it with evangelical fervour. Suddenly what had been backdoor privatization became The Third Way” (p. 20).
The Labour plan for the P3 involved the following plan:
- Regular operations were to remain under the management of the local government;
- The infrastructure (construction and maintenance) of different subway lines, was to be divided into three different groupings, each to be run by different private consortia.
- Each of the grouped lines were to become the responsibility of individual ‘Infracos’ (or infrastructure companies) which, in turn, were made up of consortia of different individual companies. The maintenance and building of infrastructure were to be leased to these firms for 15 years (later changed to 30 years).
- Infracos were expected to invest £7-billion over that time.
- The publically owned London Underground LTD (LUL) would operate the trains, stations and signals and would pay what was called an infrastructure fee (Infrastructure Service Charge) to the Infraco. LUL was considered the ‘Operating Company’ (or Opsco), and would collect revenue. It was the formal owner of the infrastructure and would regain real ownership at the end of the contract.
The Labour government was deeply committed to the P3 plan. They ignored opposition from within their own parliamentary ranks and refused to consider other funding models, arguing that only through a private sector P3 model, could adequate funds be raised on a consistent basis, to pay for needed construction and maintenance. The alternative was portrayed as a constant begging for funds, coming at the expense of
other necessary government spending. Within the state, the Treasury was particularly opposed to a public funding model. The author points to other forms of transit funding that were ignored by an ideologically driven Blair government, such as in Paris, (payroll taxes on employers); Hong Kong (government funding, plus a semi-private model including development rights for property) or New York City (bond issues secured by ticket and toll revenue, as well as state funds and the farebox).
The principal opposition from the beginning was the RMT, which led, organized and built a movement that went beyond – but included –
the immediate interests of their membership. (The union’s fabled leader, Bob Crow, elected in 2001, recently had a heart attack and
passed away at the age of 52.) RMT is the largest of the four London transit unions, and includes all grades of workers, across hundreds of locations. The other unions (TSSA – Transport Salaried Staffs Association, organizing some London
Underground station and administrative staff; ASLEF – Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen; and the engineering federation – CSEU or simply the Confederation), played a hesitant and ambivalent role, depending on the situation.
RMT’s approach was that any form of privatization would undermine the very nature of public transit and they saw the P3 plan in those terms. They called instead for the transit system to remain fully public, with increased and adequate funding from the state. The law (inherited from the Thatcher era, but not changed by Labour) prohibited political strikes, so the union raised demands that challenged the effects of the P3 on working conditions, safety, and the contractual relationships between workers and employers. So while the RMT struck over these issues, they continued an ongoing political, mobilizational and educational opposition to the P3 concept.
Booth provides both a timeline and ample descriptions of the RMT and union challenges to the P3s throughout the entire period. The actions included leafleting, petitioning strikes, protests, a joint lobbying
campaign, and alliance with the disability movement, and a collective bargaining program to challenge potential takeaways.
Part of the initial opposition included a campaign with other unions called Listen to London (LTL), which did research and lobbying with MPs and others. It included a report from an accountancy firm that
pretty much nailed what was to be the funding rip-off that the Infracos would take from the public purse. Another component of the campaign was called the Campaign Against Tube Privatization (CATP), meant to involve transit users and ordinary London residents. RMT also worked with movements such as Reclaim the Streets and the Disabled Peoples’ Action Network, along with environmental activists, protesting the abysmal records of some of the companies bidding for the Infraco contracts.
Listen to London lobbied every Labour MP and RMT organized protests at Labour Party policymaking sessions. While some of the internal Labour groupings opposed the P3 plan, the leadership refused to budge.
The design of ‘outcomes’ included a system of rewards and punishments for the Infracos. The central component was to be an output
based system – the London Underground couldn’t tell the Infracos what to do with such tasks as signal
upgrades, track improvements or new trains. The latter would decide what to do and would be evaluated on the basis of a set of criteria, such as the effects on passengers (journey time, for example). The idea was to combine freedom for the Infracos and maximize their “scope for innovation and flexibility.”
Other ‘measurables’ included: average journey times, cost to passengers of delays, and ‘ambiance’ (which had to do with station refurbishment). There were also benchmarks: when Infracos fell short, there were penalties (called ‘abatements’), and when
they exceeded goals, there were rewards. Benchmarks were set below 5 per cent existing performance levels, so Infracos could both allow a certain amount of deterioration and then earn a bonus when they exceeded a benchmark which had now been lowered. A newspaper at the time noted that “the disparity between the two
sides of the partnership will be like that between the honeymoon limousine and the tin can – with the passengers in the tin can” (p. 47).
The P3 also created a system of what was called ‘service points,’ which captured faults that were not covered in the above-mention
scheme, such as failing to fix problems on time. Each instance would cost an abatement of £50. But the Infracos had numerous ways around these charges, such as testing only the best trains,
having an artificially high monthly threshold for service points (so Infracos could make 100,000 mistakes and not pay a single
penalty); complex and confidential contractual arrangements that hid errors or shortcomings. There were unsuccessful efforts to try and make sure that the Infracos didn’t simply maintain infrastructure that would last until the end of the contract without making any real improvements.
The London authorities (London Underground Limited, or LUL) would pay the Infracos a fee, called an Infrastructure Service Charge (IFC). Abatements and bonuses would be added or subtracted accordingly. It would be reviewed every 7.5 years. LUL had access to their stations during normal passenger use periods, while the Infracos would take over during the night hours to complete their work, except when needed for operating times.
The LUL could revise what it required of the Infracos, and there was an arbitrator appointed to rule on disputes. The authorities couldn’t penalize the Infraco for making excess profits. The Infracos could request higher
rates from the arbitrator, but the Underground management could not. LUL could get rid of the Infraco if it breached the contract “materially or persistently.” After a long process, it
could revert to the public sector. There was no provision to terminate a contract if it were deemed to be in the public interest to do so. The author asserts that this was rather unique in such relationships.
The P3 plan went through a ‘shadow running’ test period. It experimented with the organizational structures which would soon
become characteristic of the full P3. It split up tasks and groups of
workers in ways that did not make sense from an operational point of
view. It took longer to make repairs and the obsession with cost reduction was all too obvious. Workers and managers commented on the
obvious flaws. Even in this preliminary period, they included numerous safety and maintenance problems.
Before implementing the P3, there was a faulty ‘value for money’ exercise (all but standard procedure with P3s to legitimate them and
make them appear cost-efficient). It ostensibly compared the cost of the project to a public sector comparator. The method was flawed and
skewed to make the project look more efficient. Both the National Audit Office and a commissioned assessment by Delloite and Touche
found key errors, mainly by artificially inflating the cost of the
public sector comparator. (The government commissioned its own assessment, by Ernst and Young, which – not surprisingly – then came to different conclusions.)
In 2000, the New Labour government reinstituted an autonomous London city government, with a strong mayor and an elected assembly. Transit was a major issue in the election, with Ken Livingstone
elected in opposition to the P3 plan, running as an independent. Polls showed that 53 per cent of the public opposed the plan, while
23 per cent supported it. The London city government was to take ownership over the underground after the full imposition of the P3.
Livingstone challenged the plan in court and in the EU judicial process, but lost both and was left resorting to calls for limits and conditions on the P3 plan.
Just after the general election of 2001, the government announced the Infraco bidding winners, with whom the London
Underground would have to reach an agreement in order to make the P3
happen: Metronet (led by Bombardier and 4 others) and Tube Lines (dominated by Bechtel and others).
The Infraco consortia were guaranteed huge profits from the beginning. Bidders demanded and received full reimbursements for
costs (including the losers). They also were allowed lowered expectations in exchange for more guaranteed funds (which applied to
such outcomes as the number of stations to be modernized, track drainage, bridges and structures).
The P3 in Practice and in Demise
How did the Infracos actually perform? The promises of bringing efficient maintenance and big improvements to the
underground, of improving safety, of earning profits that would serve
as ‘just rewards’ for efforts of the Infraco consortia were all terrible failures. Given the claims for public
transit privatization in London (and elsewhere), it is worthwhile listing them.
First, Tube Lines missed 22 of the 39 benchmark targets for availability (measured in ‘lost
customer hours’) in the first year, with increased breakdowns and track problems. The LUL was unhappy with the overall performance and
one of its reports stated that assets wouldn’t be up to snuff until
2025. In the second year, only 10 of its 18 stations to be refurbished by March 2005 were completed. They were behind on
escalator repairs and refurbishment. Metronet’s work was ahead on
one line in these areas, but behind in others. It spent 50 per cent
of its expected costs for just 25 per cent of completed works in the sub ground area.
Second, track replacement was behind and signalling was a huge problem, particularly failure to maintain equipment. This created a number of
dangers. A complex web of subcontracting by the Infracos led to further problems, with temps and contracted workers often
having a lack of qualifications, leading to faulty work. Elevator
maintenance and fixing steps and walks – central for the safety and
accessibility of the tubes for people with disabilities – were often kept at bare minimum levels.
Third, there were many safety issues. A series of derailments occurred, related to issues such as bolts, brackets and gearboxes that weren’t
fixed due to cost obsession and complacency. (One example given was
that an agency worker was asked to check 10 trains on a shift, when
the norm had previously been 3). There were numerous fire safety
violations. As well, there were faulty reporting procedures, and standards and tolerances for track adjustments had been loosened. One
of the quotes from a driver gives a sense of the problem: “The
private companies’ motivation was to keep trains in service regardless, so their payments were not affected” (p.105).
Fourth, the P3 regime created incentives to make choices that hurt safety, proper maintenance and passenger needs. After one derailment in 2004,
Metronet used the time while investigations were going on to improve
its ‘ambiance’ numbers, rather than carrying out repairs, so it could “win bonuses that offset any penalties it might incur for not
fixing faults.” As Booth notes, “this did not make railway sense, but it made business sense” (p.124).
Fifth, by 2005, 24 trains or engineering vehicles derailed in depots and many customer hours were lost (through major delays, passengers stuck
in trains and tunnels, signal failures, etc.) The Waterloo and City Line upgrade failed; there were only 12 out of 30 promised renewals on subsurface lines were completed, with issues such as pulled-down communication wires, cracks in wheel seats, etc.
Finally, aside from the effects of splitting the maintenance and construction work between three different employers, the P3 regime undermined the
rights of workers. Tube Line closed the traditional pension plan off to new hires, forcing them into a weaker alternative scheme, even
though LUL had provisions to allow all workers into the preferred plan. Soon after, Metronet did the same, making the P3 a two-tier
system. Metronet tried to transfer workers into Bombardier’s payroll a number of times, but the RMT protested and threatened
strike action. Both Infracos also attempted to force lower wages, compulsory overtime and problematic work schedules,
which were refused by the workers. Contract workers were not kept on after their terms ended, as well.
Financing the Underground P3
Aside from the usual ideological myths about the relative inefficiency of the public sector in relation to private capital, the principal
justification for private financing and management projects such as
P3s is its supposed superiority in raising funds for infrastructure
upgrading. It is portrayed as saving taxpayers money, while accomplishing more than governments. But the London underground P3 demonstrated the opposite.
The total value of the P3 contracts was to be £15.7-billion over 30 years (or £9.7-billion over the first 7 ½ years). The private sector was to pay 25
per cent toward the work to be done; government grants would cover
60 per cent; fares 15 per cent, but the 25 per cent from the Infracos was covered by the state, via the
Infrastructure Service Charge. As well, the process of procuring and
negotiating the P3 cost the state £180-million and the bidders £275-million – but the public paid for the latter as well.
Whatever the financing method, Booth points out, the state and either taxpayers or transit users (both the same) would be paying in the
end. “Money doesn’t come from the private sector, but comes through it.” The private consortia lay it out, but it is paid for
by transit fares and government grants. And, the farebox ratio (the
percentage of operations that is covered by transit fares) is higher in London than New York or Paris at around 70 per cent, (and similar to the rate in Toronto).
There were other financing issues that became apparent as the P3 proceeded. When the Infracos took over, they cancelled
previous tool and material orders and replaced them with contracts
with companies they had close relations with, leading to higher costs than before.
The Central government grant rose from £44.1-million in 1997/98, to £1,218-million in 2003/04, a 27-fold increase from the conception of the plan to its
actual birth. By April 2005, LUL had paid £2,220.2-million in
Infrastructure Service Charges to the Infracos. Of Metronet’s income, 66 per cent came in the form of Infrastructure
Service Charges, 31 per cent from borrowing and 3 per cent from shareholders. Tube Lines’ numbers were 51 per cent from ISC, 42 per cent borrowing and
7 per cent from shareholders.
The P3 really provided little actual new funding and, in fact, required more state funding. The resources flowed in the other direction.
Infraco investments were further reduced by the practice of paying contractors before they did the work and at Metronet having
many contractors that were owned by consortium members. Tube Lines
awarded contracts to outside companies, but also paid large sums to its own companies.
The P3 wasn’t the only private financing scheme to backfire. One such modern radio communications system known as Connect, was supposed to
work underground. On the date of the terrorist bombing in London in
2005, it failed in the immediate aftermath of the event, and made the
further tragic shooting of an innocent Brazilian electrician possible. This system was supposed to be working by 2003.
The End of the Transit P3
After another derailment in 2007, Metronet announced it couldn’t meet its obligation and was placed in ‘Administration,’ or bankruptcy. It
had used contract workers from a number of sources, had a lack of
proper risk assessment, and had six different collision incidents with objects since 2006.
Metronet contracted most of its work to a “consortium within a consortium,” with subcontractors that had no understanding or training in doing
the maintenance work it had promised. As well, some of its
shareholders were also contractors – the layer upon layer or
corporate bureaucracy, contract-padding and so forth that has plagued almost all P3s with corruption.
The London authorities went through a period of trying to figure out what to do with Metronet’s maintenance responsibilities. The failed
privatization had cost billions of pounds and the British government
was unable to attract a new private bidder. The lines controlled by
the former Metronet slowly made their way back into the public ownership.
Workers demanded to keep their pension, to return to LUL, and ultimately, to get access to the original rights that they had lost when the P3 was
first instituted. After a series of job actions led by RMT, they won
those demands, but the workers on Tube Lines did not. Cleaners also
had to strike for higher pay, both at Metronet (now under public management) as well as Tube Lines.
But with an enormous inherited debt from the botched P3, Metronet began cutting costs and service. The London authorities officially took
over Metronet in May 2008, and by September 2009 the workers were permanently transferred there.
Tube Lines, too, had major troubles delivering on the promises made in the P3 process. The Jubilee Line upgrade was way behind schedule and
dogged by numerous failures such as endless closures, particularly in
installing a new signalling system and, inadequate training of
drivers. It also demanded more funds from LUL, in order to finish its
work. There were also disputes about the Infrastructure Service
Charge amount, with the Infraco claiming it couldn’t
complete work on the Piccadilly Line upgrade work, particularly providing accessibility for people with disabilities.
All of this questioned the very logic that New Labour had used to justify the P3 – that it would cost less to have the private sector pay and deliver service better than the state controlled system. In fact, the privatized underground demanded more resources from the government, and also required fare rises, service cuts and declining working conditions for workers.
After the general election in 2010 that ended the New Labour government and gave way to the David Cameron Conservative led coalition, the British government announced the buy-back of Tube Lines by the London authorities, paying £310-million to Bechtel and Amey for their shares. But they have kept Tube Lines as a separate entity, rather than integrating it into the larger LUL.
Lessons from the London Underground Privatization
Booth raises a number of reasons for the failure of the P3: the needless complexity of splitting up a previously unified system, in the name
of facilitating private profit; the waste and legal costs of “subsidizing business for providing nothing of value”; false
claims about funding needs, risks and profits; the problematic notion that a subway system could be self-sustaining; creating a system that “incentivized reckless management.”
But, underlying the actual scheme that couldn’t work, were a series of larger political issues.
First, it wasn’t the form of this particular P3 scheme – the nature of P3s is for the private
sector to use public funds to make profit, while falsely claiming to
take responsibility to use its own resources to build new infrastructure. Second, it showed the horrible role of New Labour,
desperately looking to build credibility with business, and abdicating any responsibility toward the public sector and the working-class or its institutions. The author argues that this
strategy has been a failure. Third, it reflected a disdain for democracy, in ignoring the clear opposition of the people of London
and in Labour not using its huge parliamentary majority to reassert
the role of the public sector and properly fund transit. As well, Labour’s refusal to change Thatcher’s anti-labour laws, helped to limit the capacity of the unions, especially RMT, to resist the P3.
The unions were the principal organized force that challenged the P3. RMT and sometimes the other transit unions waged ongoing campaigns,
from the planning stage through to the end, although it took
different forms. This work was key in getting a critical message
across to the public and win over their own members and workers in
general. This idea of public transit was portrayed by RMT and others as a class issue.
The waste incurred by the P3 experiment created a pretext for further draconian cuts, in the wake of its demise. There were cuts to
station and administration jobs; a scaling back and loosening of
safety rules and practices; and a reduction of train staff, etc. In
other words, the failure of the P3 didn’t automatically discredit
the notion of privatization or cutting public spending. There remains a consensus between the mainstream political parties that the issues
that drove the P3 project remain – and that further efforts to
address the underfunding of London public transit through cuts to public spending and involving private capital are in order and
continue. Prevailing opinion amongst managers is that certain core
functions could remain public, but others can be privatized. Booth cites the outsourcing of cleaners, catering, building and some
maintenance, with workers in these jobs losing sick pay, holiday pay, adequate pension and safety rules.
A Socialist Alternative for Public Transit
Like a coda to a fine piece of music, the final chapter ‘A Socialist Alternative’ really is quite wonderful – and unique. It includes a vision of what a socialist public transit system structure might look like, geared toward the interests of workers and transit users
(and runs parallel to the free public transit campaigns springing up in Canada and around the world).
Beginning from the assumption of a unified, publicly owned, properly funded and locally governed transit system providing an essential public service, Booth makes a number of essential visionary points. She calls for a transit system that is an integral part of the entire
fabric of city life, planned in relation to jobs and housing. She argues that public transit should move in the direction of free fares and, as such, should be considered to be a public good, like schools, policing and fire protection. It needs to be integrated with a larger
socially planned London transport network, including subways, buses,
bikes, pedestrian, river travel, taxis, light rail, streetcars and air. It should, she argued, be accompanied by a re-planning of London itself.
Funding should also be free of ties to the private sector (that is, even
where some private operations and funding are allowed in the service,
this must never include forms of private ownership or management of
transit as part of the funding arrangement). She argues for taxes on
business, development charges, and taxing the financial sector.
France’s transport tax on corporations with over 9 employees is cited here.
Booth also moves onto the question of the forms of democratic control and
management at the local level of massive enterprises like public transit. Public ownership, even if locally controlled, does not necessarily reflect the interests of transit users and workers. The problem is not that elected politicians make decisions about transit, but the political content of what they do and argue for doesn’t necessarily reflect the interests of workers and those who use transit. Instead, she argues for a form of industrial democracy, where workers and users also have greater input into the larger planning and managerial structures, as well as everyday managerial and operational functions. Structures need to be transformed to accommodate this. Booth calls for a “Workers and Passenger Plan”:
- Managerial and planning bodies of the transit system must include workers, passengers and would-be passengers (currently excluded because of different form of inaccessibility).
- Complete and open disclosure of all financial and planning information.
- The plan’s content might include things like: massive upgrades; significant fare reduction; expansion of current lines with new and extensive networks; enough staff to run things safely; new tech that is developed and applied in ways that workers can use, rather than simply as ways to replace workers; full accessibility for people with disabilities in all plans; priority for projects that serve working-class people and their neighbourhoods; using public works to create good, well-paying unionized jobs when building new infrastructure.
- The plan would be drawn up and overseen by a “democratically elected governing body of workers, passengers and the community” (p.193).
The process of developing the plan would be a form of political education in itself. And the author notes that this kind of experience can contribute to an understanding about what life might be like in a different social system – one that stands in contrast
with the more traditional, social democratic (and state socialist) vision of what state ownership might promise the working-class.
She contends that “if workers and passengers are to run London Underground, then workers and passengers must lead the campaign to achieve this policy… It needs to be active, rank-and-file-led, militant and outward-looking. And it needs to pit its faith in our own self-organization” (p. 194).
There are some questions raised, but not answered in the book, and I want to briefly mention them. How would the underground interface with other forms of public transit, mentioned in the book? What kinds of political alternatives can be developed in order not to have to rely on a Labour Party which seems hopelessly compromised (or does the author think it can somehow be transformed)?
In another sense, I noticed that most struggles by the RMT took the form of information campaigns or strikes. While the former is essential, and the latter both democratic and central to the labour movement, what about more creative tactics that can win over transit users, and prefigure the kind of transit that we want to see in the future, such as allowing people on for free and increasing key services as a protest, rather than a strike?
Another aspect of the book I found quite fascinating were the contrasts with our experience
in Toronto. The relentless efforts of RMT, with its members, its partner unions and community allies provide a stark contrast to the extremely defensive role of the transit union in Toronto. The transit union in Toronto – and across this country – needs to become a leader in the struggle against privatization, but also cuts, fare hikes and the slow and almost negligible investments in public transit construction and operations.
This is an important and engaging book on the dangers of privatization and the neoliberal attack on public transit. Public transit activists around the world need to pay close attention to the mess and detours that the London Underground has gone through. In particular, there is an important point for transit unions. The role that the RMT took on shows what can be done with an engaged and activist union, that sees its role as engaging with and fighting for the larger interests of the class as a whole. As well, the growing international movement for ‘no fares’ and expansion of public transit can learn from this real and ongoing experiment with efforts to build a transit movement in one of the key urban centres of world capitalism. •