Thursday, 11 June 2009

Make this the last tube strike

London's tube drivers are on strike (again), holding the entire city to ransom (again). The answer seems obvious to me:

1) Fire them all
2) Offer to re-hire on near identical terms, minus any union affiliation
3) High profile training scheme to make up the shortfall

Actually there wouldn't be much of a shortfall. Very few tube drivers could afford not to accept the offer to re-hire, not in this economy. And there'd be no shortage of people willing to accept the offer of training and work. In fact it's precisely because of the state of the economy that makes the timing of this scheme perfect.

As a Londoner, I'd be happy to put up with a few months with the service at 80-90%, if it means we get no more strikes in the long term.

I imagine there'd be financial repercussions for firing people en masse. Maybe problems with pension schemes, etc. But it would actually be a very small group you'd have to worry about (those who didn't re-hire). And there are no shortage of articles shouting about how much money the city loses each time there's a strike.

And this could revitalise Gordon Brown's career. Could give Boris Johnson a lot of support. I don't support either politician, I'm just saying there is political capital to be gained. The tube drivers have little or no support outside their union.

So, what am I missing?

11 comments:

Blaine said...

I sympathise with the struggles of a lack of the tube, but with all due respect there was no proposal to cover London with a giant glass dome when the snow brought the city to a halt.

The right to strike is an important aspect of social equality in an environment where the bosses have significantly more power than the workers. Removing the right to strike means that workers are left with absolutely no recourse (short of quitting outright) in the event of a dispute with an employer.

The computer industry is an employee's market; it's easy to find new work if you disagree with your employer, and employers are often highly compelled to do what it takes to keep people around. Moreover, leaving your job has the opposite effect as the "real world"; in the computer industry, sticking around at one employer too long has a stigma attached. For everyone else, switching jobs all the time means you're incompetent or a poor investment.

This isn't to say that unions aren't often broken organizations, but there are a number of consequences to, say, firing everyone.

1. It would be illegal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_labour_law, c.f. unfair dismissal. TFL wouldn't be able to claim that it was making workers "redundant", only to hire them back again).

2. It would be illegal to re-hire workers with the right to form a union stripped.

3. Since the union has already been formed, it would likely require the re-corpratisation of tfl and any related organizations.

4. Promoting a high turnover of transit employees means increased crime. Long-term, relatively anonymous employees have a vested interest to do their job well. Temporary employees do not have this interest, especially if their goal is to be disruptive (e.g., terrorism). Getting a Tube Employee Badge would become much easier, in other words.

5. Even if the right to strike were stripped, a shutdown strike is not the only way to cause mass disruption; work to rule on the tube would potentially be more disruptive. Imagine if tube employees enforced safety rules around number of people per carriage, etc! The drain would take hours if sufficient room for safety were ensured and verified. I'm sure tube employees (esp drivers) could find regulations that would be nearly impossible to repeal that would guarantee that no tube train would ever roll down the tracks again (mandatory inspections of tunnels, switching equipment replacement schedules, etc, etc).

So while it's entirely reasonable to be frustrated (indeed, that's the point) the hope is that the powers that be (i.e., the executives at TfL) will respond to public pressure and offer the workers a better deal. If they can't, or if they refuse, then there are mediation approaches that are generally very successful.

In any event, just be glad it's probably not going to end like this: http://everything2.com/title/The%2520End%2520of%2520the%2520Translink%2520Strike

Gavman said...

They could always be replaced by robots. Fire the lot of them and let the trains drive themselves, pretty much like the DLR. I've seen simple robots that could do it.

Come to think of it, where's the Lego Mindstorms kit...

cdent said...

It's an interesting phenomenon that generally sensible people, who would usually be in favor of worker's rights, get all "fire the lot of them" when their own lives are impacted.

There's no doubt that many unions, and many union members, stretch the boundaries of what is acceptable. It is also the case, though, that most people who are unionized are operating under conditions that are foul compared to many other people. Last I checked I make quite a lot more money than a tube driver, but if it weren't for that tube driver I'd never make it in to the office when I wanted to get there.

Every single time I ride the tube I hate it. It is dirty, smelly, overcrowded, full of a bunch of really shitty people who think they deserve better (and they do, but getting shitty isn't helping anyone). I ride the tube maybe 5-10 times a month. Your friendly neighborhood driver is on that thing a lot more than that.

If I were a tube driver, I wouldn't be striking for more money, I'd be striking for someone to get down in those holes and improve the infrastructure. It's really really abysmally dismal, and an embarrassment to London and the entire country. It may have been the first tube, but it still is the first tube.

Come into the future all you victorians: People deserve a better tube and the laboring classes deserve better conditions: Both are the backbone on which the extremely classist British society rest.

Please add some additional hyperbolic foof as required.

FND said...

I'm afraid I'm gonna have to echo Blaine's and cdent's stance here; I was quite shocked to see you suggest outlawing unions there. It's a gross overreaction out of frustration. (We've had quite a lot of those in recent years... )
I'm far from being a unionist myself, and I don't claim to know much about the current situation - but it's a freedom that should not be curtailed in a democratic society.

Martin said...

Blain and Chris have covered most of the fallacies in Phil's post, so I'll just add that I'm surprised that Phil (who I count among those Chris describes as 'the generally sensible people') would post something that is so ill-researched, unworkable and tyrannical.

Phil Whitehouse said...

Thanks for your comments guys, good stuff!

You might be surprised to hear that I share many of your left-leaning views, generally with regards to worker rights under poor conditions. But I still think that the opposing arguments hold some water and deserve some consideration.

My view comes from a belief in a free market economy. In this free market, in most sectors, there are mechanisms to help control things like salaries, working hours, government mandated safety standards, quality and more. So the big question is: why can't these forces apply to tube drivers as well? Why should they have such a powerful threat at their disposal? If we were building the London Underground workforce from scratch, would we start with such a powerful union? I don't think so.

So, yes, let them quit if they don't like their job. Free market forces would kick in, salaries would go up, employee turnover would go down, and an equilibrium would be achieved. I like to think that this would lead to improved conditions AND a better tube, in the long run.

We also have to consider the greater good. How much damage did the strike cause, in terms of business lost, in terms of lives lost (hospital staffing was affected) in terms of missed opportunity? We'll never know for sure. What we do know is that the threat of further strikes is real. I'm more frustrated by the injustice than any inconvenience (I don't use the tube for my daily commute).

As for it being illegal, laws can be changed, especially if there is public support.

Gavin's comment about robots is interesting. It seems plausible, potentially safer, cheaper, etc. and would never happen if the union remains intact, standing in the way of reasonable progress.

For what it's worth, I don't have any problem with workers being organised and well represented. Keep the unions, if they must, but let's remove the threat of strike. Whether a union has any power without the threat of strike, well, maybe that's another issue...

MyID.config.php said...

I worked for LUL for a few years, and came up against the RMT a few times.

In my experience the RMT is an old-school, adversarial union. Its thinking is back in the 70s. This was once matched by equally adversarial and foolhardy management practices. In this environment unions are the gatekeeper between staff and management, fuelling the distrust of both. They are parasitic, both to individual members and to the enterprise. That they were allowed to become so is the fault of the old school, adversarial management, and their own members.

That said, there are unions which are not like that. As most of the posters here have said, individuals must be allowed to organise, or not, as they choose. However they must be able to make that decision based on enlightened self interest. With good management and leadership, workers and firms can have a mutually beneficial relationship. Good unions can support that. Bob Crow and the RMT are not interested in such things however, the only tactic they know is to demand, to strike, and that is a massive disservice to their members. They are the epitome of a bad union.

It does seem that their members are realising this. This strike seemed far, far less effective than previous one which leads me to believe that better management is having good results, showing tube workers that the dinosaur politics of the RMT is not in their best interests. This is the way to beat the RMT, and move towards the free market in labour that Phil describes. Mass sackings, or banning unions are just not practical.

@cdent There has been a massive amount of money and effort put into to improving the infrastructure. It is still a work in progress but it compares favourably in terms of performance and experience with any other metro light rail network in the world. I've commuted in Paris, Houston and Vienna and all of these have similar problems to the tube. The tube is certainly not 'abysmally dismal'. Given the challenges it faces and the age of the network it is pretty damn good.

cdent said...

"The tube is certainly not 'abysmally dismal'. Given the challenges it faces and the age of the network it is pretty damn good."

Relatively speaking it _is_ pretty damn good. I'm happy it exists. But on an absolute scale of what public transport ought to be in any modern, thriving city, especially one that prides itself on being one of _the_ cities in the world, it's abysmally dismal.

I'm very very tired of things being considered good because they are better than anything else available. If everything else available is really awful, being better than awful is not good.

Martin said...

Phil,

your original post did not talk about market forces, nor did it propose some sort of no-strike agreement. It simply proposed firing the tube drivers and hiring them back without union affiliation.

I said your posting was ill-researched because you don't seem to be aware of the fact that Aslef (which represents 2000 of London's 3500 tube drivers) voted not to strike, and their drivers were instructed to cross RMT picket lines.

I doubt that the full details of why the strike went ahead (by all accounts a deal was on the verge of being agreed), but I suspect inter-union rivalry was actually one of the main reasons.

As for tube drivers being able to hold London to ransom, I think you overstate that ability. There is virtually no public support for striking tube drivers and this is a strong check on their ability to use the strike sanction. Witness how few tube strikes there have actually been (the RMT quite often issues threats of strikes, and engages in brinkmanship, but it very rarely actually carries out those threats).

Phil Whitehouse said...

Martin,

I'll happily admit to the blog post being ill-researched - it's only a blog post! And who's to say someone who hasn't done lots of research can't have a good idea? I'm keeping an open mind, adjusting my views and position as the arguments come in - hence now talking about free market forces.

A pithy, tongue-in-cheek blog post has turned into a semi-serious debate, and my opinion hasn't changed; the power of strike action ought to be removed somehow.

If I read the debate correctly, there are those who think things are fine as they are, and those who don't. Of those who don't, no-one has come up with a better idea!

Fact is, there are enough strikes to make an impact. Something Must Be Done!

Martin said...

I think there is one thing we can all agree on: if you want lots of comments to your blog post, then say something controversial.