The #TubeStrike hashtag today isn’t one for the faint hearted. The Independent have thoughtfully compiled a tutorial for those who’d rather simply block it all out, but I’ve a kind of morbid fascination for it and where it comes from. I’ve identified five distinct types of tosh doing the rounds on the web, which I present here in no particular order:
1. What are they complaining about? Tube drivers get nearly £50,000.
Where to start? People are getting tied up on this one in a whole heap of ways. There’s those saying drivers deserve the cash for a difficult and responsible job (they do), that other public service workers should get more (they should), that it shows more people should join unions (duh), that some of those complaining about it don’t reckon top bankers are overpaid (funny that), or that it’s a function of capitalism (well yes).
But that’s all missing the point by a country mile.
Most people on strike today are not tube drivers. A Driver is a relatively senior position in London Underground. Station staff start at around half what tube drivers get. That’s for a job that currently includes anti-social hours working, and is now moving into full-on sociopathic hours working. Not many people outside the comment pages of the Daily Mail would begrudge a platform attendant that much. So shut up already about people on £50k.
2. London Underground have made a new offer and it looks pretty reasonable.
London Underground came back with a last minute response. It’s a favourite tactic of employers trying to confuse a strike. And true to form it doesn’t actually amount to much.
LU say that nobody will have to work longer hours as a result of these changes. But the strikers know that already – It’s part of the reason they’re striking. LU are trying to do night Tubes on the cheap, stretching the same staff hours out to cover with fewer people. Station attendants will have to do 12 hour overnight shifts on their own.
LU claim that whilst they may be imposing these new shifts on workers, it’s okay as it’s only temporary. Workers will be able to refuse all night shifts after the trial period. The glaring problem with that is that the “trial period” is one whole year. That’s quite some trial. Whilst they might just be able to work around it if it were just a fortnight, I can’t see many Tube workers’ spouses’ employers being happy to ‘temporarily’ change their hours for a whole year, so they can make childcare work, before they change back again. There’s also nothing about what happens if they don’t want to do the all-nighters after that. Will they get other shifts back, or just lose the hours?
And similarly disingenuous is London Underground’s claim that staff can swap shifts between themselves. That’s just lazy – trying to get the staff to clear up the employer’s mess themselves on an ad hoc basis. Nobody can plan long term commitments around informal swapping with their workmates. If LU weren’t trying to force this through unreasonably quickly for an arbitrary deadline they could do it much more fairly, working out a proper system for shift patterns through negotiation.
The ‘new offer’ doesn’t change anything. These workers’ employer is still rostering them to work all nights without negotiating it with them. That’s unreasonable, and LU should shut up about it.
3. What’s with all these strikes nowadays?
Reading certain parts of our media today, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re heading for a full on “Winter of discontent”, via an “Autumn of discontent”, and following a similarly mardy spring and summer. It seems you can’t step outside your front door without being ‘held to ransom’ by rampaging gangs of ‘union barons’. However, the main reason the media are noticing strikes so much at the moment is that they’ve become so unusual – There are so few of them! We’ve had historically low strike action since the 90’s.
Last year, average days lost to strikes amounted to 12 minutes per worker. Have you spent 12 minutes on Facebook at work over the last year? No wonder the Government are so keen to ban Facebook. Oh wait, they aren’t.
If you really want to get nostalgic about a bygone era when people were out on strike every week and England still managed to win at football, you can shut up and carry on.
4. How dare they mess up my evening? Don’t they know who I am?
Yes, strikes inconvenience people – by definition. I’ve never yet met a striking worker who wanted to be out, or who wasn’t concerned about how it would impact on a service that they like working for and want to do well. Striking is a last option, when your employer is refusing to negotiate – it’s not something people do on a whim. But it’s hard to see how a worker can refuse to work without impacting on the people who make use of their work. That’s the same whether you’re a striking ticket officer, a cinema usher, or a museum attendant. No-one gloats over the hassle they’re causing innocent people.
There’s a peculiar lack of self awareness out there of people who are outraged at being delayed from doing the things they want to do in their leisure time, or their family lives for one whole day. As opposed of course to the Tube workers who are going to have their family and personal lives messed up every day, week in, week out.
So basically, yes, I’m afraid it sucks for everyone and will mean genuine problems for some people. But the majority of you tweeting about the complete nightmare of a slower journey can probably shut up and get over yourselves for one day.
5. If they don’t like it, why don’t they get another job?
Let me guess, your boss hasn’t told you recently that you’re going to be working all night next Saturday night, and doing it on your own? Thought not.
Lots of us have decent jobs with broadly decent employers. But what happens when your boss does something totally unreasonable and refuses to negotiate? It happens, and in a country where more and more people are being shunted into zero hours, short hours or false self employment temp jobs with fewer and fewer rights, it happens more often than you might think.
Union members won big changes like weekends (we like those), 8 hour days and paid holidays, because they didn’t take unreasonable abuse without doing something about it. If you let all the traffic go one way, eventually every job you move into will get just as bad as the last.
So if you think walking out of a career is a viable alternative to challenging injustices, then you have two options. Shut up, or grow a spine and join a union.