I took the tube today just to see what all the fuss was about. Just the one stop between Bethnal Green and Liverpool St. I was running late so it was a mutually beneficial arrangement – the Tube gets me to work quicker than a bus can, I get to experience a diluted version of the commuter experience of millions of day-to-day London Underground passengers and TfL gets a couple of quid extra out of me. I tell you what, I had a blast. Three minutes, station to station, just enough room to remove my backpack like a good fellow passenger, and the guy who was wearing far too many layers and not enough deodorant didn’t stink that badly. I can almost see why everyone was so distressed about such an immensely valuable service not being available for around 27 hours Wednesday to Thursday.
They say you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone and indeed, many Londoners on Wednesday were outraged at the temerity of the striking union members that make up the staff of TfL, when it meant they couldn’t get the tube home or to work the following day. I get it. Sometimes any inconvenience – such as a disruption to your routine twice-daily journey – is enough to tip you over the edge after a tough day or before a busy one. No-one wants to spend any more time than they have to getting to or from work. When the sun is shining and the sofa’s calling, who wants to squeeze on a bus for two and a half hours, walk from Waterloo to Bank and back again, or take two trains and a boat to get to work because there’s no alternative? (Actually, that last one sounds pretty cool!) No wonder the loss of this service was so keenly felt.
The thing with loss is that things are rarely back to normal as quickly as they were this morning. Particularly when it comes to the loss of highly valuable – and in some cases essential – services, we don’t tend to notice their demise and deterioration until we’re in sudden need of them. How many times do you visit your GP in a year, for instance? Or A&E? How many times do you call the fire brigade out? How many times do you phone 999 and ask for the police? Well all of those services are being eroded right now, their employees disempowered, their budgets cut. When you need an ambulance to collect an elderly relative who has had a fall, are they going to be able to respond as quickly as you’d hope? If they aren’t, why is that? Is it that people are moving away from those essential roles because their pensions are being attacked, because they’ve just been told that any possible salary increases are going to be held below 1% for at least another four years, or because they’re vilified (along with the poor and most vulnerable in society) as somehow being part of the wasteful cause of this economic ‘mess’ the country apparently still finds itself in.
People complain when you compare a tube worker to a nurse, or to a fireman. “They get paid so much already, isn’t this just greed?” they say. “Why don’t nurses and firemen get anywhere near the salaries and benefits that Tube workers do?” Well, to paraphrase my facebook post from Wednesday, how do you think the Tube staff got such ‘generous’ terms, just by turning up? They got to that position by having one of the few remaining effective unions left in this country, one which supports its members, always lobbies for the best deal for them and when they don’t like the terms they’re given, withdraws its members’ labour. Yes, it might seem like they’re on a lot and so why should they ask for an in line with inflation pay rise (or at least somewhere close), or go out in solidarity with their colleagues when drastic staffing cuts are announced, or take to the picket line again to protest cuts to their pensions (just a few of the terrible reasons they’ve gone on strike in the past few years), but if you had some ability to stop the organisations you all work for taking liberties like this with you and your colleagues, wouldn’t you? What about if you and your colleagues were those on whom we really rely, not just those who we find it damned inconvenient when they don’t go to work?
If essential service workers such as doctors, nurses and firemen stood up to their employers as much as the Tube workers do, or if the police threatened to break the covenant preventing them from joining unions or taking industrial action, in order to ensure they were recompensed in a manner more befitting of the essential work they do, those workers and subsequently those services, would be all the better for it. If their unions hadn’t been so undermined with some of “the most restrictive [laws] on trade unions in the western world” (Tony Blair), they would ultimately hold the government to far greater account than they do now and ensure that political and corporate interest wasn’t put ahead of the national and social interest to the enormous extent it is now. People don’t tend to enter into working for these essential services by mistake. They care about the people they’re servicing and the function they provide to society. If we reward these people rather than restricting and punishing them, we enable them to thrive and provide a better overall service to us all.
Over the last century, union activity, industrial action and organised civil disobedience like this week’s Tube strike has helped all of us to gain rights as employees that we now take for granted: paid holiday entitlement; paid and statutory sick leave; maternity and paternity leave; minimum notice periods; the making of summary dismissal illegal; anti-discrimination laws. The list goes on. As the effectiveness of the organisations who fought for those rights for us is undermined, so with them goes our ability to stand up to our employer and not have to look elsewhere for work if we are being unfairly treated. So with them goes the ability of those essential workers to cry foul when they see their vital work being dismantled by the powers that be. Do you think any employer, public or private, would accede to any of those rights listed above if they didn’t have to? The pressure that unions like the RMT and ASLEF exert on TfL and the rail companies – and by extension the government – ensures that their members are well looked after, but it also fundamentally stops the services their members are employed to provide, from being critically undermined. I’m sure if you spoke to the vast majority of workers in the NHS, the fire brigade and the police force, they would certainly attest that each of their services could do with a healthy dose of that.
If you think that Tube workers are paid too much, then stroll into Bethnal Green station and see how long it takes you to get to Liverpool Street. Take a look at how many other people are taking advantage of that supremely valuable service each and every day, often with very little disruption. How does that happen? Is it luck, or is it due to a well organised and effective service staffed by well compensated employees who refuse to be exploited by their employer? Then – and we’re about to get a bit drastic here people – I want you to go and sprain your ankle. Or set fire to your kitchen. Or get yourself mugged.* Now pop to the A&E, call the fire brigade or summon the old bill. As those nurses, firemen and police are executing their duties effectively and often brilliantly, consider whether they deserve to get paid more, to get a day or two more holiday, to have a better pension scheme or to work a few less hours. If you think not, then fair enough, I’m not sure why you’ve read this far, to be honest. If you think they do, then stand in solidarity with them, those essential service workers, by supporting the valuable service worker in asking for a better deal from his employer, or the non-essential service workers asking not to have their contracts changed without consultation, and even the non-valuable service workers simply asking not to be booted from their zero-hours contract because someone else will do the job, probably for less.
If you disempower those Tube workers and stop their democratically elected trades union representatives from threatening the withdrawal of their labour, you are stopping the unions of nurses, waiters, firemen, bus drivers, cleaners, office workers, teachers, cinema workers and any number of other employees from ever trying, or being able to do the same. “We don’t let the Tube workers strike,” they’ll say. “Why on earth would we let you?” One employee’s rights are not removed from another’s. Just because what you or I do is valuable or not, all employees have the right to decent working conditions, fair pay and benefits, and not to be exploited or the terms of their employment changed at the whim of management. If first when they came for the miners you did nothing, and when they came for the Tube workers you did nothing, when they come for you, or the nurses, the firemen, the paramedics, the policemen, what will you do then?
With that in mind, I think I’ll walk home tonight.
* Please don’t. This is entirely a rhetorical device and those essential services are under enough pressure from cuts, privatisation and employee exploitation, without your petty ankle-spraining, fire-setting, mugger-provoking ways…