Today in London transport history: Workers on DLR go on two day strike, 2015

 On 3rd November 2015, workers on Docklands Light Railways (DLR) in London began a 48-hour strike, the first strike at the DLR to fully shut down its rail services since its inception in 1987. The strike began at 03:58 a.m., ending exactly two days later.

The work stoppage was called by the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, with members voting 92 percent ballot in favour. The union had an ongoing dispute is with the current DLR franchise owner, KeolisAmey Docklands (KAD), who inherited the franchise from Serco in December 2014. Their winning of the tender had been based on proposals of further cost-cutting, which Serco had themselves already prided themselves on.

RMT members on the DLR were furious at the way that KeolisAmey were trying to force through “some of the worst working practices and conditions associated with the operations of the most cheapskate and anti-union companies in the transport sector.”

KAD was making use of lower-paid contract workers to partly run the DLR lines, in order to undermine existing working conditions. Keolis is a global corporation running transportation networks in cities across the world.

The strike disrupted the whole DLR network from Lewisham to Poplar to Canary Wharf.

In the UK, Keolis owns 35 percent of Govia, which operates the Govia Thameslink Railway, Southern, Southeastern and London Midland franchises and has a 45 percent shareholding in First TransPennine Express—delivering one-in-three rail journeys in the UK. Amey is one of the UK’s leading public service providers.

Keolis has a history of slashing costs by sub-tendering jobs to its own contractors. In Boston, in the United States, for example, Keolis won a contract for commuter rail services by promising cost savings over the then-current operator. The current operator was a joint venture of which Keolis is a member.

The history of the DLR is one of a series of franchises run by various contractors with the collaboration of the trade unions, the RMT in particular.

The DLR is theoretically a subsidiary of TfL. Although TfL is one commercial body, workers employed by it are divided by a myriad of subsidiaries and sub-contractors. All trade unions at TfL are “stakeholders” and in this way share in the exploitation of their own members. Since its beginnings, the DLR always employed a multi-tiered workforce on different terms and conditions. KAD is entitled as per franchise agreement to employ contract workers on different terms and conditions than those currently employed. The franchise agreement is well known to all stakeholders, including the trade unions.

Ironically, the DLR was designed and built to avoid strikes, overseen by Thatcherite minsters determined to crush organised workers on public transport, as well as planning the massive regeneration of the London docklands area, and wanting it to be a shiny new ‘forward-looking’ (individualist paradise…) At the beginning in ran only on working days in working hours – locals who lived in the area it were quick to suss that it wasn’t designed for the likes of them that lived there (and that the whole regeneration project including the DLR was intended to replace and remove them…)

The DLR was initially constructed for £77 million: the Department of Transport had to be convinced to contribute half by Michael Heseltine, Environment Secretary, who had put up the other half with the idea that it would assist with the Docklands regeneration. Derided as a “toy town” railway to nowhere, the DLR was subsequently repeatedly upgraded as Canary Wharf emerged and required much greater capacity.

Nicholas Ridley, the arch-Thatcherite Transport Secretary, had a great influence on its creation. Designed and built entirely by the private sector in order to keep it out of the hands of Ken Livingstone’s left-wing Greater London Council, engineers and planners who worked on the DLR recall being told that making the trains driverless, and thus invulnerable to union disruption, was an essential requirement. That worked well then.

One consultant who worked on the project recalls that powering the DLR via overhead cables was ruled out by the Thatcher government, who told him with some disgust that: “This must not look like a bloody tram! Trams come from socialist countries. We are not a socialist country!”

Disputes on the Line continue… In April 2018 another planned four day strike  of RMT members over the “fundamental issues” of workplace justice, fairness and the outsourcing of key functions was suspended pending further talks…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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