London Tube Strike: City Held Hostage by Union Barons

On Wednesday, it took me around 45 minutes and cost £40 ($65) in a London black cab to traverse the three miles between Victoria train station and Gray's Inn Road in London. Those familiar with the city will realize I could have walked this distance in about 60 minutes.

But I didn't get out of the cab, instead choosing to watch the meter tick along, penny by penny, for I was far more interested in using the journey along Victoria Street, up Whitehall, and across the Strand as a means by which to judge a London in the throes of an epic London Underground (Tube) strike called by union bosses earlier this week.

If you're unaware, the Tube is integral to London, so much so that the government is considering making it an "essential service" to the country, which currently includes things such as the emergency services, armed forces, water supply, airports, and more. There are about 3.5 million journeys made on the Tube every day. If the Tube isn't running, there's gridlock, panic, and the capital – Britain's foremost revenue generator – effectively grinds to a halt.

But yesterday was different, and today will be different too.

The unions, specifically the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA), thought they could hold London hostage over their "demands" that Tube ticket-office staff not be made to get out from behind the glass screen. Their narrative remains the predominant one across the mainstream media, with most outlets doing little to clarify that most would not be sacked when proposed changes are introduced, but rather, redeployed elsewhere within the London Underground, namely in front of ticket gates.

This isn't good enough for the union barons like former Communist Party member Bob Crow, the head of the RMT, who when not sunning himself on the beaches of Rio is living it up on his £145,000 ($236,000) salary while dwelling in government-subsidised housing. As Simon Edge in The Daily Express puts it, Crow represents excellent value for money for his union members:

Given that Tube drivers get a £46,000 starting salary, 43 days of holiday and a bonus of £350 for working on Boxing Day [December 26], few are likely to begrudge him his handsome salary. It’s the rest of us, including low-paid workers who are already struggling to pay the huge costs of public transport in London (if you pay cash it costs £4.70 to go one stop compared with £1.40 in Paris), who will suffer.

There's no denying that a lot of salaried staff at London Underground have managed to procure themselves rather cushy positions. Manning ticket-offices and/or driving trains are neither highly-skilled jobs, nor are they positions that we particularly need to beg people to take. Yet Tube drivers are paid over double what a soldier in the British Army earns. It's safe to say that, in their union bosses, Tube workers have very good lobbyists.

However, unlike any other lobbyist in the world, when union barons don't get their way, they're able to call a strike, forcing (or at least trying to force) the whole of Britain's largest city to shut down around them. Such things do little to endear the general public to the over-salaried, under-worked Tube staff's pseudo-plight.

Last night, as I ambled along the Strand at a mere 5 MPH, blocked by empty bus after empty bus, or cyclists who have taken to Boris's bicycle scheme for the day, I saw a city determined to "get on with it" in the face of union greed. My cab driver (a member of a group I often feel is the heart and soul of London) remarked, "Yeah it's been a good day for us, but no one really cares. There's some traffic. There's some inconvenience; but no one's letting Bob Crow and that lot ruin their day. Everyone just gets on with it, and they'll hate that."

No doubt some days will have been ruined, but yesterday and today, most Londoners showed that they won't be held to ransom over fatuous demands. If anything, this strike will push the public further towards the idea of driverless trains and self-service ticket machines. Robots can't strike (yet).

When all is said and done, no one gets on the Tube for the "service." We get on the Tube for the transport. No amount of alarmist propaganda by the unions – including ridiculous questions like, "What will blind people do at ticket offices?" – will now convince Londoners that we should be remunerating these individuals twice as much as policemen, firefighters, or teachers.

If you're wondering what blind people, tourists, and elderly people will do at ticket offices, the answer is simple: London Underground isn't planning on completely unmanned stations. They simply want staff off their bums and in front of the gates. Surely this is where those in need can be helped best?


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