This week the train drivers union ASLEF, announced a second 24 hour strike on the London Underground following last week’s grinding to a halt of the London transport system. The strikes follow a long running industrial dispute between tube drivers and the London Underground, over the extension of Underground services throughout the night.
For the unions, the issue is not about the introduction of a night tube, or about money, but simply about how the proposed changes are to be implemented. Workers, who currently have to work one week of nights a year, will now have to work up to 14 weeks of night shifts, without any consideration for workers conditions.
The strikes have proved hugely unpopular especially amongst regular commuters, with accusations being made that the unions are holding the capital hostage. Twitter has been full of complaints as commenters express how the strikes have ruined their travel plans, bemoaning the drivers’ right to strike.
On other social media, graphics soon appeared comparing the pay, benefits and working hours of a doctor to a tube driver and asking why one had the right to strike while the other had to suffer under worse conditions.
This is the true face of the politics of envy in the UK. People unable to utilise a union and industrial action to protect their own interests, demonise those that exercise their rights. People view their right to a service as more important than workers’ conditions and their right not to be exploited.
This renewed interest in strikes and trade union rights comes as the government is set to introduce new, tougher strike laws. A minimum ballot for strike action is to be imposed, unions will have to secure a 50% turnout and secure the support of 40% of their membership in order to call a strike. A threshold that does not apply in any other democratic action in the UK and that many an MP would fail to pass.
Other changes will allow employers to bring in agency workers to temporarily replace striking workers, significantly reducing the leverage strike action provides during negotiations. More controversial changes such as the proposal to make it a criminal offence for more than 6 people to be on a picket line outside a place of work have been dropped.
This lack of public support for strikes can been seen in a number of professions, from teachers to firefighters and now train drivers. For some services, employees are compelled to provide a service no matter the terms or conditions they may face, as is the case with doctors being asked to work weekends and firefighters being asked to work into their 60’s.
The governments proposed changes to strike laws represent a further attack on workers conditions, all done in the name of increased productivity and economic progress. In some ways, the unions are paying for mistakes they have made in the past. They’ve been accused of only balloting a small number of their members, being too willing to strike and being stuck in a militant mind-set. Trade unions aren’t perfect, but they do provide fundamental protection to workers against exploitation. They also have a role as mediating bodies between employers’ interests and those of workers; helping to create a happy and productive workforce.