Learning about Labor in London

I have been living in London for a month, as part of my university’s study abroad program.  (It’s a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it.)  As it happens, I am a Brit and lived here decades ago between college and grad school, before moving to the US for most of my adult life.  It’s good to be back, as a sort of native foreigner, and with a group of American undergraduates for whom it is all new.  They’ve figured how to cross the road without getting killed, how to bag their own groceries, how to say “cheers” instead of thank you, and they seem to be enjoying the younger drinking age.  But they were floored by the recent strike on the London Underground, which they have learned to call “the tube.”  Commutes to class that normally took forty minutes now took two hours.  Why wasn’t everybody else outraged?

Of the cities I’ve known, London has the most efficient and rider-friendly transportation system (also the most expensive).  Trains and buses are clean, comfortable, and safe, arriving every few minutes, from early morning until late at night.  Electronic signs at stations and bus stops inform you when the next will arrive.   The “Oyster card” makes for easy movement through the turnstiles, and there is usually someone to help if they jam or you’re lugging a large suitcase. Clearly, smart investments have been made by Transport for London (TfL), the “public private partnership” instituted in 2003 under former Labour mayor Ken Livingston, known as “Red Ken.”

The tube carries 3.4 million riders a day, so even without a strike it can get crowded in rush hour, as I discovered recently at Victoria station.  The platform was packed with people from the wall to the tracks, with more filing in through the access tunnels, and another file trying to make for the exits in the opposite direction.  Trains arrived a minute or two apart and the front layer of people would push on board each time.  I was amazed by the orderliness of the scene, maybe a thousand people waiting, taking turns, no-one apparently complaining or freaking out.  So this is in fact possible: the tacit solidarity of strangers for the common good.  In this case, keeping safe and getting home or to dates with who- or whatever.

Although during the strike most Londoners – who are used to these biennial disruptions – seemed to “keep calm and carry on,” the strike did expose fractures in this apparent solidarity.  What looked initially like a political contest over control of public resources, and of the workforce that sustains them, turned out to have roots in class conflict as well.

The simple version of the cause of the February 2014 strike is unionized tube workers’ objection to proposals by TfL to close station ticket offices at a cost of about 950 jobs, for a saving of £50 million a year.   The unions involved – the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) – obviously have an interest in protecting their members’ jobs, but there are also issues of safety at stations with only one staff member on duty to help passengers in need or respond to emergencies.  Too, the unions argue that not everyone has access to the smart phones and credit cards — that TfL says will replace ticket and information booths.  RMT claims the cuts will have a “seriously adverse impact on women, older and disabled people and the BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] community.”

The UK tabloid press, which makes no distinction between news and opinion, quickly lost sight of those issues and instead set the story up as a melodramatic power struggle between Good Old Boris Johnson, the mayor, and Bad Old Bob Crow, leader of the RMT.  Elected in 2008 and again in 2012, Johnson is a fully vested member of the old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated set that once again rules this country (Prime Minister David Cameron has the same pedigree).  With his artfully tousled blond mop and clownish wit, Johnson conceals a nimble right-wing opportunism.  Bob Crow is a Cockney Socialist, whose union was “disaffiliated” from Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 2004 in a clash between RMT’s left alliances and New Labour’s pro-business agenda.  According to the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, Crow “sees himself as waging class war in his job every day.”

Johnson appears to be much the better PR man.  He has deflected attention from the inconvenient fact that he campaigned against former Mayor Livingston on a platform that included “no ticket office closings” – and won.  Now he says, everyone has iPhones so technology makes the offices redundant.  Johnson has instead made much of that fact that Crow, who earns $145,000 as head of his 70,000 member union, lives in a Council (i.e. publicly subsidized) house.  Crow, of course, would claim that this allows him to stay connected to the working-class community he came up in.  Johnson, meanwhile, makes $250,000 a year for his weekly column in the conservative Daily Telegraph, which he uses to lambast Crow and his union for their attempt “to paralyse the greatest city on earth.”

Crow did score a point when he invited Johnson, on a radio show, to sit down and settle things, which Johnson has repeatedly refused to do.  “He’s met 86 bankers since he’s been mayor. But he won’t meet the trade unions,” Crow pointed out.  Labour MP Emily Thornberry had this to say to Johnson: “How mad is it that you haven’t spoken to [Bob Crow] for five years? He has to call you up on LBC to talk to you. It’s not right.  It’s nonsense why the leader of London is not talking to the leader of the Underground union. It’s just the most ridiculous bit of willy-waving I’ve seen.”  Compounding Johnson’s failure of leadership is the fact that as mayor he is also Chairman of the Board of Transport for London and sets its budget.  These are his proposals that he is refusing to discuss, in pursuit of the Tory’s anti-union agenda.

So the first 48-hour strike went ahead, February 4 – 6, with about 30% of trains running, thanks in part to strikebreakers who were skillfully rebranded as “ambassadors” (to evoke the spirit of the 2012 Olympic Games here, when such volunteers helped visitors find their way around).  A second strike planned for the following week was called off after TfL agreed to halt implementation of the proposed cuts pending consultation with the unions and passenger groups over a range of future issues impacting safety, cost-saving, and job security, including ticket-office closures, “lone working,” and 24-hour service.

For my students, coming from a culture in which unions are often demonized as a greedy special interest, this is a great learning opportunity.  They can study the class conflicts that underlie London’s business-as-usual, which get exposed when it is disrupted.  They can also study the reasons for “industrial action” and glimpse the possibilities for beneficial outcomes: the chance, at least, of cooperation between local government and labor organizations in the interest of a safer, more efficient public transportation system staffed by people whose expertise and right to a decent livelihood is respected.  That, anyway, is what I will try to teach them.

Nick Coles

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One Response to Learning about Labor in London

  1. Alan says:

    Interesting commentary, but Crow’s salary is overstated by the Tory press. They add in things like his pension contributions and expenses. His actual salary (before income tax) is £78,000. That figure is approved annually by the union’s membership. He also has to submit himself to re-election every five years. The Daily Mirror needs to be excluded from the “tabloids”, as it has not joined in the anti-Crow clamour.

    Like

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