05 August 2015 •

Panic on the streets of London (again)

Brace yourselves, today we are about to be hit with another one. Tube drivers are taking their second day of strike action in a month in protest over terms and conditions related to the introduction of 24-hour train services on weekends from September.

Fortunately they don’t occur too often, but strikes are a powerful weapon for trade unions in the UK. Your view on whether they are a legitimate aspect of workplace negotiations might be influenced by your political allegiance, or whether you are directly affected by them. If you live, or particularly work in London you almost certainly fall into the latter category. If you live north of Watford it might be fun to turn on the television and witness hordes of southerners meandering around the capital looking confused and agitated.

The last tube strike began on 8th July at about 18:00 and lasted “24 hours” (“24 hours” by the way: 08/07/[email protected]:00 – 10/07/[email protected]:00 = 36 hours… maybe their extensive training excludes basic mathematics?!), it caused utter chaos on the streets of London as commuters sought alternative methods of getting to and from work. Police were called to one bus stop as the driver refused to move due to the bus being too packed. Victoria station boasted what was termed ‘the world’s longest bus queue’ with people standing in line for half a mile!

There appeared to be little sympathy for striking tube train drivers with newspapers reporting annual salaries after training of £49,673, and 43 days holiday a year:
‘Give us a butchers at your paper mate. Cor blimey, forty nine bags o’ sand for driving a John Wayne..? Do me a favour’, said one irate taxi driver as we inched our way along Kensington High Street.

I’ve heard many folk eagerly claim they would happily swap jobs with tube drivers if they didn’t like their newly proposed terms. But sadly you can’t, as TFL (Transport for London) don’t advertise tube driver jobs externally due to a deal with Trade Unions. They are mostly advertised internally, and only externally if the post can’t be filled; therefore, if you want to become a train driver you will need to apply to become Chief Operating Officer of London Underground and work your way up… Or you could opt instead to become a nurse or a soldier, but these jobs are a lot more demanding and only command starting salaries of £21,692 and £17,945 respectively.

Exponents of strike action often speak of ‘the right to strike’, but actually there is no right to strike under English law. If you agree to work on any given day and then choose not to because you want more holiday, you are in breach of contract – you won’t be protected by strike laws under these circumstances. The law only recognises the existence of ‘trade disputes’, which severely limits the grounds for action (and virtually excludes agency workers or outsourced employees). The RMT claim justification for the recent strike as 76% of those who voted favoured strike action. However, what they fail to mention is there was only a 40% turnout meaning only 30% of eligible voters backed the strike. The current government are planning to reform this; Sajid Javid the new Business Secretary has revealed plans to enforce a minimum turnout of 50% for strike action to be lawful with a minimum overall backing of 40% as a requirement. On that basis this week’s strike would not have been permitted giving Londoners an easier passage to work. The Labour Party has denounced these plans highlighting the fact that the Tory party mandate is one won on an electoral majority of just 24%. It’s a fair point, but then you have to consider a strike ballot is a simple yes/no question – an election is fought by many candidates giving the voter more than two options at the ballot box.

The trade unions have done much to improve working conditions and benefits over the years: Two day weekends; maternity leave; eight hour working days; paid holidays and the right to not be sacked because you had a baby, became ill or got married are just a few examples of how pressure from the unions has benefited us all. I count myself as one who has benefited, and will always be grateful to them for that; although, I do think they got the numbers mixed up a bit, and they should really have rallied for an eight day weekend and two hour working day. Nonetheless, they meant well and it’s the thought that counts.

 

These advancements serve as proof to the legitimacy trade unions have in the fight to end bad practice in the workplace and improve working life for us all. However, with frustrations running high, many think strikes are a step too far – if the unions want better pay and conditions for its members, why should the general public be used as pawns in its game and be forced to suffer as a consequence? How many people missed appointments on 9th July, how many people were forced to take holiday as they couldn’t get to work and how many lives were put at risk because emergency services were stuck in traffic? Then there is the cost to the economy, with even the most conservative estimate being placed at £10million for each day of tube strike action.

Whichever side of the argument you fall upon, Thursday is set to test the patience of most London commuters. So, dust off your trainers, drag your push bike from out of the shed and make sure you set your alarm for 04:30. When you think you have reached breaking point, remember the comforting words of Finn Brennan, the London district organiser for Aslef, the drivers’ union:
“We genuinely regret the disruption this will cause.”


Back to news

“Whatever happens there will be no change in it. People can strike until they’re blue in the face. We will go ahead with the Night Tube.” – Boris Johnson

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