A pot of tea between the Tube's Ann Burfutt and her adversaries would be a frosty affair indeed

Barrie Clement on the animosity hindering strike negotiations
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The Independent Online
A battle of politics and personalities forms an intriguing backdrop to the London tube strike which will today cause transport chaos once more in the capital.

At one extreme of the painfully drawn-out negotiations is a union team which bears the infuence of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, while at the other is an "abrasive" London Underground team. A shared pot of tea between Ann Burfutt, the 42-year-old director of human resources and her union adversaries would be a frosty affair indeed.

There is a genuine argument at the centre of the tube conflict over the meaning of a deal to end last year's unrest which provided for a one-hour reduction in the working week. The unions believe that productivity improvements over the last 12 months should trigger the shorter working week, but management argues that the wording involves a commitment to fresh efficiency measures.

Relations between Ms Burfutt and representatives of the two unions involved - Aslef and RMT - have, however, contributed to the unrest.

The social permafrost and the consequent problem of communication helps to explain three sucessive years of disruption. It also helps to explain the present standoff which has resulted in today's 24-hour strike and is expected to lead to another next Monday. Six more strike days are planned unless there can be a meeting of minds.

Part of the difficulty is political. Six of the 13 members of the "general grades" executive, which covers the rail industry at the RMT, are members of Arthur Scargill's hard left Socialist Labour Party. Bob Crow, the union's assistant general secretary and chief negotiator at the Underground, left the Communist Party of Britain to join the SLP. The union is one of the few organisations where Mr Scargill's party can claim a degree of influence. SLP members see the dispute as part of the class struggle and for some of them conviviality with the "boss class" is tantamount to supping with the devil.

Yet the divide is not only polticial. Even Jimmy Knapp, the traditionalist but avuncular general secretary of the RMT who is an opponent of the SLP, has been unable to find a single point of contact with Ms Burfutt.

As for Lew Adams, general secretary of Aslef and a leftist member of the Labour Party, there have been occasions when his professional irritation has finally spilled over into blind rage.

Last year, at another time of industrial unrest on the tube system, Ms Burfutt insisted on taking Aslef to the High Court. In a late-night hearing a judge declared the union's strike ballot unlawful on what Mr Adams saw as a technicality. One who was present said: "Lew went ballistic. If Ann Burfutt had been a man, Lew would have hit him."

On Tuesday, Mr Adams characterised management as "sick and incompetent", while London Underground accused him of "thumbing through the playground book of insults".

It is clear that Ms Burfutt, a former personnel manager at Islington Council who joined London Transport in 1993, is ill- at-ease with the union negotiators. After one recent session she remarked that she had been "faced by seven angry men". Thus a significant part of the communication problem may well be her gender and the "maleness" of the union officials. Unlike her predecessor, she cannot retire to the pub after a prolonged and expletive-ridden meeting for a bout of male-bonding over a pint.

Union officials are baffled by her style. "She is either the most subtle, far-sighted negotiator or the most inept," said one RMT man. There is no doubting her toughness, indeed "abrasiveness", according to some.

Management sources however argue that the politics of the RMT does not help - "some of them are on another planet" - and neither does the unions' dinosaur negotiating style.

"They are difficult people to negotiate with. Ann prides herself on her honesty. When she says it is the final offer, she means it."

However, there is an eminence grise on management's side. Ms Burfutt will sometimes make it clear to unions that while she might well go along with a particular suggestion, her board would not. Chairing that board is Peter Ford, who joined London Transport from P&O where he was among the "hawks" who insisted that the then National Union of Seamen, now part of the RMT, should be derecognised. Mr Ford is not over-fond of unions, and his organisation is facing some union negotiators who want to smash capitalism.

Not a formula for industrial peace.

History of a damaging dispute

The central issue in the dispute between unions and management at London Underground is the interpretation of a deal which resulted in industrial action last year.

The unions believe that productivity improvements over the last 12 months should trigger a one-hour reduction in the working week.

Management argues that the wording of the agreement requires a commitment to fresh efficiency measures. The unions want to continue talks at conciliation service Acas, but London Underground has called for a suspension of the action pending binding arbitration - a course of action supported by the Labour Party.

Apart from today's 24-hour strike and another scheduled for Monday, six further strike days are planned for: Wednesday, 7 August; Tuesday, 13 August; Friday, 23 August; Tuesday, 27 August; Thursday, 5 September; and Monday, 9 September.

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