Over the past few decades, tube strikes have become a recurring part of London life. But industrial action is, of course, nothing new. Some of the earliest strikes on the underground fought to establish important principles, often without union backing and to the huge derision of press and parliament. Others led to unintended consequences.
1918: Women walk out
The first major industrial action to hit the tube was a strike over equal pay for women. During World War One, women had taken over many of the jobs traditionally done by men, including work as train guards and ticket office assistants. In most cases, though, they received less pay than male counterparts. Following a strike of bus and tram workers, wildcat industrial action took place on the tube, mostly affecting the Bakerloo Line. The main organisational meetings took place at The Ring on Blackfriars Road — by a weird coincidence this is now the location of the Palestra Building, home of London Underground’s main control centre. The strike lasted three days and provoked some concessions, including a five shilling war bonus. Equal pay between men and women was not enshrined in law until 1970, and a gap still persists in many sectors.
1919: We want a lunch break, please!
Many tube stations were closed by a tube-driver strike in early February. The workers demanded something that today we would all take for granted: a paid 30 minute break for lunch as part of their eight-hour day. Employees at tube power stations also downed tools in solidarity, and the strike threatened to go national. An estimated 400,000 people walked into the city at the height of the action, while others tried to board over-stretched trams and buses. The strike was coincidentally timed just as hundreds of troops were passing through the capital on redeployments. Newspapers report that travel-wary soldiers were using market barrows to haul their kit between mainline stations. The government and train companies eventually saw sense, and the workers got their paid lunch break.
1924: Wildcat strike brings chaos
This year saw several strikes, collectively the most disruptive industrial action to hit the network up to that point. A strike by 6,000 railwaymen and workers at both Lots Road and Wood Lane power stations brought much of the network to a halt. Most unions were against this unofficial strike action, which was led by (as the Yorkshire Post described them) ‘some eight irresponsible men’. Their demands were for the abolition of job-grade classification for locomotive drivers, and the restoration of a guaranteed eight-hours pay for Sunday duty. The Times described it as a ‘communist plot‘, echoing the words of several Members of Parliament, who presented the strike as unsupported communist agitation to destroy the authority of the unions. The strikes caused huge disruption in London. LBC has a remarkable series of photos showing huge crowds of disgruntled commuters competing for scarce places on buses, trams and taxis. As wildcat strikers, the workers had no power of negotiation. The government and train companies would talk only to union leaders. The strike fizzled out after a week of disruption. As the Times put it: ‘To have succeeded, [the strikers] would have required to extemporize an organization capable of superseding the unions’.
1944: Wartime strike locks out tube shelterers
There might have been an ‘all in it together’ spirit in London during the Second World War, but some tube workers felt they were ‘in it’ a little too much. Back then, it was perfectly normal for the tube to operate on Christmas Day. Members of the National Union of Railwaymen and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen demanded two days’ holiday in lieu of working 25 December. When this was refused, they came out on an unofficial strike, paralysing the system. As well as stymying seasonal travellers, the strike also inconvenienced the many Londoners who still used the underground as a bomb shelter. The main blitz had ended three years before, but this was the first time since the start of the bombing that overnight access to the stations was denied. Given that it was Christmas, many of the shelterers had planned parties for the children, which had to be cancelled without warning. As the Nottingham Evening Post said four days later: “The strikers are still getting caustic reminders of all this. It will take them some time to live down the resentment their action has caused.”
1959: The passengers go on strike
We’ve all dreamed of doing it: a sit-in protest against crappy service on the underground. In 1959, it became something of a ‘thing’. In January, a train fault at Euston prompted the guard to ‘detrain’ passengers. There was much argument and confusion, with many refusing to budge. The ‘sit-in protest’, as it was dubbed, held up services for nearly 40 minutes before the train was repaired and continued its journey. In late October, passengers rebelled on an eastbound Central Line train following an unexpected termination. When a door failed to close properly, the driver told everyone to clear out at Mile End station. About 120 of the 1,000 passengers refused to leave. After much argument, the train pulled off for Hainault depot, taking the disgruntled passengers with it. As the train passed through Stratford, though, someone pulled the emergency cord, the train stopped, and the grumpian protestors alighted. Newspaper reports of the time allude to other incidents, where regular delays and cancellations led to increasingly militant passengers. While clearly not ‘strikes’ in the strict sense, the sit-ins were labelled as such, and conflated with other industrial action, widespread at the time.
Note on sources: many newspaper articles (most behind paywalls, which we don’t link to) were used to compile this piece. Please email the author (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like further info on any of these stories.