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A few thoughts about the tube strikes

February 12th, 2014 · Posted by Skuds in Life/Politics · 1 Comment · Life, Politics

Having spent six years working for one of London Underground’s contractors and, before that, six years working for London Underground itself I am somewhat familiar with the tube, even if I have not used it much in the last ten years. The current dispute is mainly about Boris Johnson’s plans to cut the numbers of staff at stations and the trade unions’ resistance to those cuts.

It may be unfashionable, but I think that both sides have a point.

The problem with Boris Johnson is that even if he is right (but only up to a point) he is still in the wrong. It may be that there is some scope to reduce staffing on the tube, but you don’t go into an election with a major campaigning issue being a promise to keep an open ticket office at every station and then decide to close some or all of them. That is the sort of saying one thing but doing another that gets all politicians a bad name. It is as bad as signing a pledge to remove tuition fees then voting to increase them.

There is some scope for reducing staffing in some places at some times, though probably not as much as Boris would want, but even so Bob Crow and his colleagues are absolutely right to resist any cuts because that is their job. We are expected to forgive, or at the very least tolerate all sorts of behaviour from companies (closing a profitable factory and laying off 100s just to move operations to an even more profitable factory overseas? Moving money through multiple shell companies to avoid paying any corporation tax?) because the boards of those companies have a duty to their shareholders. We are told that this duty to shareholders to maximise returns trumps any other considerations, usually by the same people who would never accept that union leaders have those obligations to their members.

Who is going to continue to pay their union subs every month if the union does not then support them in any way it can? That does not necessarily mean keeping people employed to do jobs that do not need doing, but that is the traditional starting position in negotiations. They might be happy to negotiate those jobs away if it is phased over a period of time, done through natural wastage and with guarantees of alternative jobs. It is called compromise, where the company gets what it wants, or some of it, but maybe not as quickly and in a way that has less impact on individuals.

Don’t get me wrong, we don’t want the network emptied of staff. We have had enough examples of where having plenty of tube staff around has proved to be needed and has probably saved lives. Just think back to some of the crashes, fires, bomb attacks and other incidents.Cut the staffing levels too much and you would practically have an Ibrox situation every rush hour at some major stations, let alone if there was a fire or a train needed to be emptied in a tunnel.

I have used the tube and similar services in New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Stockholm and Sydney. Sometimes there are no staff to be found at all and although everything worked fine it can make late night trips a little nervous and it would have been more reassuring to know there were actually staff around – but that doesn’t mean that you need to man every platform and barrier line all the time.

How many staff you need depends on how busy the place is. At Victoria in the rush hour or at Camden Town on a Sunday morning you need plenty of people to manage the crowds in normal operation, let alone if there was an incident, but at 11pm at Upminster Bridge? It may also be that a station that is completely new like Westminster might be easier to run with fewer staff than something built by the Victorians. It would take a lot of working out exactly what levels of staffing are appropriate for each location and I don’t have any confidence that the Mayor’s office have put that much thought into it.

The people who would really be able to tell you if a particular station could get by with fewer staff at particular times are people like the DSMs, who know exactly what goes on but they are not going to tell you anything if they think you will then apply your own factor to it and make cuts based on your own agenda and statistics rather than sound operational principles.

It was probably similar when LU decided to do away with guards on trains.

The last thought is the most obvious and it really irritates me. It is about the mandate or alleged lack of mandate for striking. The media are only too to trot out the figures that “only 20% voted for this strike’ or whatever the number is. It really doesn’t matter. When turnout in national elections is not too much higher than 50%  in some places and turnout in local elections can struggle to reach double figures in some wards you would have thought that politicians would be wary of trying to use such logic. Very few MPs get 50% of the votes cast so there must be hardly any with over 50% of the eligible voters actively supporting them.

But that is to underestimate the chutzpah (or lack of self awareness?) of MPs and elected mayors who will happily assume that anybody who didn’t vote for a strike must be against it but anybody who doesn’t vote in local or national elections just doesn’t count. Every time I hear those who campaigned against and voted against even the small electoral reform of STV call out for ever more restrictive measures on strike ballots it winds me up to breaking point.



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One Comment so far ↓

  • Alison Cornell

    I also think that it is a classic example of poor management. We all know that Boris has consistently refused to meet with unions, but of course as any good manager knows, an essential element of effective change management is discussion, consultation and negotiation. In Germany, there would be worker representation on the Tfl board. The way this has been done is appallingly poor management, Victorian and un enlightened. My guess is, if better managed, they could have completely avoided even the threat of a strike, let alone an actual one. It is also massively disrespectful to working men and women.