A major 24-hour strike by London Underground staff is set to go ahead on Friday morning, with commuters warned that their journeys could be hit by “severe disruption”.
Drivers belonging to the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union who work on the Victoria, Central, Northern, Piccadilly and Jubilee lines have been told not to turn up for work from 4.30am in protest at an unpopular revamping of rotas to accommodate the return of the Night Tube.
Transport for London (TfL) said the industrial action would result in “little or no service in places”, with the Waterloo and City line – which employs Central line drivers – also likely to be hit.
Another full-day walkout is currently scheduled for Saturday 18 December should no agreement be reached between the two sides.
The Night Tube is due to restart on Saturday night for the first time since its suspension at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last spring, but only on the Victoria and Central lines, whose drivers are also now under orders not to work from 8.30pm on Saturday until 4.30am on Sunday.
TfL is still expecting to run a service but admits there could be fewer trains than hoped, according to The Evening Standard.
Further overnight strikes from 8.30pm to 4.30am are currently planned for 3 December, 4 December, 10 December, 11 December and 17 December.
First introduced in August 2016, the Night Tube was opened to allow weekend revellers and evening workers to return home safely via the Tube, rather than having to linger on the capital’s streets after dark waiting for cabs and buses.
Offline since the start of the pandemic, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced its return on two routes last month, when there were at least two petitions underway calling for the service’s reinstatement to protect young women in response to the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa earlier this year.
While that announcement was broadly welcomed by the public and by West End businesses, RMT members are unhappy about a move made by TfL in May to permanently merge the dedicated Night Tube workforce of about 200 drivers, many of whom are part-time, with the Underground’s day staff, meaning that all drivers would be required to work four weekend late shifts per year.
Another union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), has accepted the change, but the RMT’s general secretary Mick Lynch said the new working arrangements “would wreck the work-life balance of our members”.
“This strike is about the ripping apart of popular and family-friendly agreements that helped make the original Night Tube such a success,” Mr Lynch said.
“Instead, the company want to cut costs and lump all drivers into a pool where they can be kicked from pillar to post at the behest of the management.
“We have made every effort in ACAS [Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service] and direct talks since the off to resolve this dispute but it is clear that London Underground bosses are driven solely by the bottom line and have no interest whatsoever in the well-being of their staff or the service to passengers.”
Mr Lynch has previously warned that the present setup risks leaving staff “burnt out and exposed to intolerable pressures”, describing the pre-pandemic Night Tube as “a magnet for violent, abusive and anti-social behaviour” where the antics of drunken passengers placed an unwelcome additional strain on Underground employees.
Nick Dent, director of London Underground customer operations, said: “The RMT’s planned strike action is needless and it will threaten London’s recovery from the pandemic, despite no job losses and more flexibility and job certainty for drivers.
“While every other union has agreed to these changes and our staff have been enjoying the benefits of the changes since August, we’re willing to work with the RMT and review the changes after Night Tube services have returned. This review can only be successful if the RMT agrees to meet us for talks and withdraws its proposed action so we can all see how these changes will work in practice.
“If the RMT refuses to engage with us and carries out its unnecessary action, which is timed to cause maximum disruption for our customers looking to enjoy London during the festive season, Londoners are advised to check before they travel on days of planned strike action.”
Also objecting to the walkout was Mr Khan, who said: “The unnecessary strike action threatened by RMT would delay many Londoners having another option to travel home safely at night and would hold our city back at a time when our culture and hospitality sectors have been devastated by the pandemic.”
Both the RMT and TfL have said they “remain open to talks” and there is still a chance a last-ditch agreement can be found.
TfL is meanwhile offering advice and further information for commuters likely to be inconvenienced by Friday’s upheaval on its website.
In a further potential headache for London Underground, ASLEF has also warned it could strike in future should changes to TfL’s pension scheme affecting its members be forced through, with Tube organiser Finn Brennan warning of “hard-hitting and sustained industrial action” if that were to happen.
Ex-Trades Union Congress general secretary and current ACAS head Sir Brendan Barber has been appointed to lead a “truly independent” review of TfL pensions and the latter organisation’s commissioner, Andy Byford, has stressed that there is “no predetermined outcome”.