Tube walk-out fails to strike a chord

A second round of 48 hour strikes by Tube workers in London has been suspended as trade unions TSSA and RMT agreed to talks with London Underground.

Last week another 48 hour strike caused massive disruption in London. Millions of commuters were left finding alternative forms of transport as a Limited Service closed most stations. Mass overcrowding was seen at essential stations such as Waterloo, and bus services were over-subscribed. Many simply took to walking to their destination.

tube strikes

The strike has affected thousands of businesses and is rumoured to have cost around £200 million in damages. This figure is contested, however, by Alf Crossman, Senior Lecturer in Industrial Relations and HRM at Surrey University, who has labelled the number as “pulled out of thin air”. Although many in the Conservative party have criticised the economic impact of the strikes, others have slammed its irrelevance in light of the massive flood damage which has taken place over the past month.

Transport for London (TfL) plans to modernise the London Underground by closing all 260 tube ticket offices, which will cause 960 job losses. TfL and the unions have clashed over the potential impact of the cuts. TfL insists that the job losses are not compulsory, stating that if employees are willing to adapt and change they would have a “job for life”. However, some 450 staff have already volunteered themselves for redundancy.

As just 3% of transactions require ticket offices, TfL has set its sights on saving £50 million a year by modernising its services, and moving non-essential staff to other posts. Furthermore, by freeing up ticket booths TfL will be able to make up for its lost government grant by generating millions in much needed advertising revenue.

However, despite the so-called “modernisations”, the unions have genuine concerns about safety and workforce reductions.  In some 125 local stations the number of staff will be cut to just 1, with 1 supervisor overseeing 6 different stations. Clearly it is almost untenable to assume that a single supervisor will be able to cover all 6 stations when a situation arises late at night.

In a raucous and heated Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron unreservedly condemned the strikes, saying they were completely unjustified. He called on his opposite number Ed Miliband to join him in the condemnation. Mr Miliband avoided the question by moving the discussion towards the issue of the flood destruction in England. Mr Miliband found himself in new ground last week as his party announced plans to shake up their relationship with trade unions by introducing a one member, one vote system.

These comments came as the government announced that it was considering plans to make the London underground an essential service. If this was followed through, LU would be subject to a minimum service agreement. This would require staff to ensure that essential services were running regardless of any industrial action. Although this will severely curb the power of the unions, many will welcome the proposals, as last week’s disruption was akin to “economic vandalism” as one MP put it.

Despite the issues, the employment dispute conciliation service Acas announced that the new strikes had been cancelled, as well as being accompanied by the news that London underground had proposed two months of intensive talks, starting Wednesday the 12th. Jim Crow, the leader of the union RMT, wrote a letter to its members, stating that LU had agreed to a station by station review of the ticket office closures which could mean some will stay open. He also highlighted the fact that LU would not impose its new proposals until consultations were held on April the 4th and that during the discussion period London Underground would put on hold all voluntary severance applications that they had received.

The final agreement by LU is extremely important to the union, as 450 staff have already come forward asking for voluntary redundancy. Aside from that fact that this could critically undermine the goals of the unions, any development in negotiations could drive workers to withdraw their applications and opt to stay in their positions.

The industrial action was widely condemned by businessmen and MPs alike last week. Many have been left wondering, however, the relevance of this minor blip in the smooth running of the western world’s commercial centre, as the rest of the country continues to suffer millions of pounds worth of damage due to unprecedented flooding.

Gareth Short

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