Committing the sin of demanding more

In their anachronistic demand for better wages, London Tube workers have struck a blow against the culture of austerity.

‘Very, very irritating’, chirruped London’s mayor Boris Johnson. Surprisingly, this was not a dig at his nasally-challenged predecessor. The perma-smirking one was in fact talking about the 48-hour rail workers strike which has brought London’s Tube network to a virtual standstill.

The principal object of Johnson’s annoyance is the strike action’s protagonist, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, which, by standing up for the interests of its members, is responding as a trade union both should respond and, contrary to the wishes of some commentators, has a right to respond.

What ought it to have done instead? Transport for London (TfL) wants to shed 1,000 jobs, which could rise by another 3,000. It also wants to offer a five-year pay deal in place of the usual one-year agreement, increasing wages by one per cent above inflation in the first year, and just 0.5 per cent per year thereafter.

Tube workers are rightly resistant. Arguing that workers should not take the financial fall for the 2007 collapse of Metronet, a private company responsible for maintaining and running sections of London’s underground network, and, more broadly, the failure of so-called Public Private Partnerships to generate sufficient funds, the RMT is simultaneously fighting job cuts and demanding a one-year pay increase of five per cent. ‘[W]e would simply not be doing our job as a union’, asserts the ever-pugnacious Bob Crow, ‘if we allowed the Tube to treat our members as cannon fodder who can be hired and fired at will. On pay, we have asked for the usual single-year agreement.’

In contrast to the largely passive response to recession-era job losses, the Tube workers’ strike action has shown a welcome refusal to accept what management, in this case TfL, wishes to dress up as an unfortunate, but inexorable, economically determined fate. It is not a response, however, that has particularly resonated with the public. This isn’t to suggest there has been widespread antagonism towards the striking workers, merely to suggest that the political meaning of the strike has largely been lost. That is to say, if support for the RMT has been lacking, Union-busting anger has been largely absent, too.

Instead, the public response has largely been framed in terms of irritation, to use Johnson’s phraseology, a co-mingling of leaves-on-the-line, the-trains-are-buggered-again cynicism with a sense of the sheer inconvenience of it all. ‘I don’t really know where I am, where I’m going or how I am going to get back’, complained one commuter on Wednesday. ‘This is a nightmare’, another fretted: ‘I had to stay downtown overnight to get to work. My work said that if we don’t come in we have to take leave, and I don’t want to do that.’ The strike action for many, it seems, is experienced little differently from the snow-induced disruption earlier this year.

In lieu of any politically-oriented relationships of support, or, indeed, of opposition, which would have once mediated reactions to a strike of this nature, the public response has been framed in terms of immediate experience, be it the travails of getting to work or the difficulty of going out in the evening. Little wonder the BBC News website was keen to know what its readers thought in the following terms: ‘Are you affected by the London Tube Strikes?’ and ‘How will you get around London?’.

Still more individuated, the Sun chose to vent its editorial ire towards the RMT in terms of the effect the strike would have on the international football match between England and Andorra at Wembley in north London: ‘Thousands of young fans have had their dreams of watching an England goal fest tonight derailed by union bully boys.’ This is a striking change in a newspaper that once presented unions and strikers as a threat to Britain’s social and political fabric.

Elsewhere, the Guardian even dedicated a piece to recording one of its writers’ Odysseus-like commute to work, which took in several modes of transport, and no doubt a couple of sirens in Soho, too. Johnson, clearly spotting the epic grandeur of Londoners’ quest, was effusive: ‘I congratulate everyone who has got to work. I think they are heroic to be struggling through this.’

Johnson’s rhetoric is telling. If he portrays commuters as brave stoics, he casts the ‘misery-making’ rail workers as the villains of the piece, self-serving instigators of grid-locked chaos. Echoing Johnson, The Times’ leader condemned the RMT: ‘There is no place for industrial sabotage in today’s Britain.’ It is a sentiment predictably echoed by John Cridland, deputy director-general of the CBI employers body: ‘It is regrettable that a small minority of people are prepared to inflict this kind of disruption on others at such a difficult time.’

Today’s Britain? A difficult time? In every criticism of the RMT and the strike, the same periodising refrain occurs. As Stephen Pollard, writing in The Times, asked rhetorically, isn’t Bob Crow aware of ‘the collapse of the economy’? ‘He lives in a different world, one where employers sit on piles of cash, keeping it from workers through sheer bloody mindedness.’

The chastising sentiment that this is simply not the time for pursuing self-interest pervades the criticism of the Tube strikers. Not now, it goes, not in a recession, not when we ought to be pulling together as a nation, just as we once did as German bomber planes soared over Britain in 1941. To demand more now, to resist the reality of hardship, is really, really selfish. Just like the 1940s and 50s, this is a time of austerity.

Hence, the critics argue, the RMT and its members ought to accept that TfL is only doing what the economic moment demands. And anyway, with the starting salary for a tube driver at over £40,000 a year, and station supervisors earning £35,000, the argument runs that they’re already paid enough. But this is largely irrelevant. It could be £50,000 or it could be £20,000 and they’d still be justified in both demanding more (not to mention resisting compulsory redundancies).

Unfortunately, now is indeed not the time to demand a better life for one’s self and one’s family. But this is not simply because of the recession; it’s because such an aspiration has never been deemed more problematic. If it’s not the salaries of rail workers under moralising scrutiny, it’s those of bankers. It seems that wherever there’s a desire for better wages there is the sin of self-interest. This isn’t a charge deployed solely by those nominally on the right, such as Johnson or Tory leader David Cameron, with his cultivating-an-age-of-austerity schtick. Those on the left have embraced the lexicon of low aspirations, too, seeing in the embrace of austerity a critique of a rapacious capitalism, from the avarice of the financial sector to the low-level, but none-the-less unthinking consumption of the duped masses.

In their wilfully anachronistic demand for more, not less, the actions of the Tube workers strike a welcome blow less against capitalism, than against the culture of austerity itself.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black criticised the Slow Movement for welcoming the economic downturn. Anna Travis wanted to put the break on the cult of slowness. Rob Lyons demanded a Routemaster for the twenty-first century. Dave Hallsworth looked back to when strikes were strikes. Or read more at spiked issue Transport.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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