A tube strike that could knock out much of the London Underground for much of this week will start tomorrow (Tuesday 1st March) unless called off at the last minute.
Although the strike, involving just over 10,000 RMT staff is scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday, its effects are expected to still be felt on the Wednesday and Friday mornings as well, meaning, effectively four days of disruptions for commuters.
TfL and the RMT have held talks at the conciliation service ACAS twice in the last two weeks, and a further meeting to try and avert the strike is taking place today.
TfL is warning that if the tube strike goes ahead, and at the moment that looks highly likely, then they expect there will be severe disruption across the entire London Underground and many stations will be closed on both Tuesday and Thursday.
TfL is also warning that tube services will be “severely disrupted” on the mornings of Wednesday and Friday, and people are asked to defer journeys until after 9am if possible.
The DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail, trams and buses aren’t on strike but are likely to be considerably busier than usual.
Commuters are being asked to work from home this week if they are able to.
Andy Lord, TfL’s Chief Operating Officer, said: “I would ask anyone who needs to use the Tube on 1 and 3 March to check before they make their journey, consider whether they are able to work from home and use alternative modes of transport where possible. It’s highly unlikely there will be an Underground service running during the strike action and services are likely to be affected on the mornings of 2 and 4 March too. I apologise to customers for this and understand they will be frustrated by this strike action, but urge them not to take it out on those who are trying to help.”
Just under half of RMT members voted for strike action, and the 50% threshold for being able to announce a strike was only just achieved.
Why is the RMT striking?
The RMT says that it sought three assurances from London Underground – that they would not be cutting staffing levels, that it will not make detrimental changes to staff terms and conditions, and that it will not make detrimental changes to the pension arrangements.
The RMT is also advising its members that it’s “likely” that they will be striking again after this week, although they will need to give 14 days notice of future strikes.
There is also an unrelated ongoing strike every weekend on the Night Tube which is affecting services on Friday and Saturday evenings.
What is TfL’s position?
For its part, TfL says that while it’s not filling existing vacancies to reduce the headcount by around 500-600 staff, it’s also not planning any redundancies. There is also a review into how the pension scheme is run, but it hasn’t reported on its findings yet.
What is the pension dispute about?
TfL’s pension is a final salary based pension, and although the pensions review hasn’t reported its findings yet, it’s known to be looking at a range of options, including one where the pension is based on the average salary a person earns while working for TfL rather than their pay on the day they leave.
Other options include switching to the Consumer Prices Index instead of the older and no longer officially recognised Retail Prices Index. Although both ratings include housing costs, CPI tends to result in a lower figure due to the way it’s calculated. A switch to CPI could in theory see future rises in pension payments reduced.
One area where there is a concern is that if the number of staff working for TfL reduces, as is planned, then that’s fewer people paying into the pension pot, so in the future, TfL would need to reduce the pension payments to match its income.
As of the end of last March, TfL’s pension has 25,976 employees paying in, but 32,556 pensioners (and 16,844 deferred pensioners) eligible for payments.
Another element is that at the moment, due to the way it was set up when TfL was created in 2000, the pension scheme is treated as a private-sector pension, although TfL itself is treated as a local authority for legislative purposes. If the pension was given the same liabilities treatment as public sector pensions, and underwritten by the central government, as public sector pensions are, that would reduce TfL’s costs by around £100 million a year. That wouldn’t reduce future pensions though, it just shifts the liabilities in the future if they can’t be met from TfL to the government.
Such a modification would probably need a change in the law that created the TfL pension scheme though, so that’s a change that only the government can make.
At the end of March 2021, the pension fund was worth £13.1 billion, having jumped sharply last year thanks to investment income. Although the pension had a shortfall of £603 million, that was at the last triannual review of the pension liabilities in March 2018. TfL has been topping up its annual payments since then to reduce the deficit, so last year’s payment by TfL reached £401 million, plus £70 million from the staff.
Sir Brendan Barber, with the support of pensions expert Joanne Segars, is leading the independent review into the pension and is expected to report back at the end of March, which coincidentally is also when the next triannual review of the pension finances will be calculated.