London RMT TSSA Tube strike brings Tubes To Halt

London RMT TSSA Tube strike brings disruption to millions of London commuters
Conservatives call for tougher strike laws after walkout stops most of tube running and brings delays to roads and trains

• Gwyn Topham and Rowena Mason

•, Wednesday 5 February 2014 11.51 EST

Commuters walk and cycle over Waterloo bridge in London during the tube strike. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
The first of two days of tube strikes in London disrupted the journeys of millions of commuters, with only limited Underground services running and buses, trains and roads heavily congested – prompting Conservatives to propose tougher strike laws.

Tube workers from the RMT and TSSA unions will remain on strike until 9.30pm on Thursday evening. On Wednesday, while managers, non-union staff and volunteers operated a limited service on sections of eight of the 11 tube lines, only around a third of trains ran and many stations were closed.

Delays increased on the roads, while buses and overground rail services were packed during rush hour. Some major central stations had to close because of the numbers of would-be travellers outside. Unions called for a safety inquiry after images emerged of what they claimed was dangerous overcrowding inside Waterloo as a skeleton staff tried to cope.

Union leaders said strike action was "rock solid". Bob Crow, leader of the RMT, said: "That is simply a reflection of the staff anger at attempts to bulldoze through cuts to jobs, services and safety which would reduce the tube to a dangerous, hollowed-out shell."

The strike was called over Transport for London (TfL) plans to "modernise" the underground, including the loss of 950 jobs and the closure of all ticket offices, which unions say has safety implications for passengers and staff. Talks between TfL and the unions at the conciliation service Acas broke down early in the week.

However, Conservatives including the mayor of London and Downing Street took the opportunity to propose tougher strike laws, including designating the tube an "essential service".

The mayor, Boris Johnson, called for proposals to be included in the 2015 Conservative manifesto to limit the right to strike.

The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, said the mayor's idea "should be given careful consideration".

It emerged that Downing Street was looking very closely at new restrictions on strike action. Although it would not be enacted under the coalition, David Cameron may make an electoral pledge to class theLondon Underground as an "essential service" to stop strike action.

Under the proposal, a minimum service would have to be provided by London Underground workers. Similar rules apply to fire service and police strikes.

Conservatives are also considering demanding that strikes be mandated by an absolute majority of a union's membership, rather than a simple majority of those who vote. A source said: "It's right that we look at issues like ballot thresholds and minimum service agreements in order to protect passengers on vital public transport networks. We will consider these and other reforms for our manifesto."

Crow condemned No 10 for "playing politics". "Rather than threatening to declare martial law in London as part of his ongoing battle with Boris Johnson for the future of the Tory party, David Cameron should be telling the mayor to stick to his election promise to Londoners not to close ticket offices."

Crow said the union remained "available for talks at any time".

About 450 staff members have expressed an interest in applying for voluntary redundancy. A total of 953 jobs will go, although 200 people could be redeployed to work on the planned 24-hour weekend tube services.

A similar strike is planned for next Wednesday and Thursday.

Business groups have claimed that the strikes will cost the capital's economy tens of millions of pounds.

Both sides have claimed that polling shows the public back their position. TfL said 82% of Londoners backed its proposed changes, with a guarantee that all stations will remain staffed during operating hours. However, a survey of 1,000 tube users for the RMT showed that most passengers believed the strike was justified, with two-thirds concerned at ticket office closures and almost nine out of 10 saying the mayor should speak directly to the unions.