Tube Strikes, Workers’ Rights and the Race to the Bottom

Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.
– Karl Marx

I don’t live in London. I work from home. I am not a Tube driver, nor do I know any. I don’t work for Uber, drive a black cab, or have a business that is in any way affected by people not being able to cross London today. You might say that I have absolutely no horse in the race when it comes to the current Tube strikes.

But I do. We all do.

This Tube strike is not primarily about pay. This Tube strike has come about (with 98% of workers (on an 81% turnout) in favour of strikes across four different unions) because of changes in the terms and conditions of contracts that have been set in place with no consultation with unions or workers. In the words of an anonymous Tube worker [highlights my own]:

“London Mayor Boris Johnson announced the imposition of 24-hour running – known as ‘Night Tube’ – on Fridays and Saturdays on five London Underground (LU) lines from September 2015. The unions weren’t consulted, and no agreements were in place for how it would be staffed.

Now LU bosses are playing catch-up with the Mayor’s vanity and obsessions with legacy, and are coming after our terms and conditions in order to ram through a deal to get us Night Tube-ready. They are not proposing any significant increase in staffing levels, despite the obvious need for it, and in fact are reducing frontline staff. They want staff to work anti-social rosters, and have stonewalled union health and safety reps’ demands for assurances that 24-hour running will be safe for passengers and staff.”

It seems fairly obvious from this that the real issue here is not pay. The issue is that someone higher up has, for his own political gain, made a decision that affects all those who work on the London Underground (not just Tube drivers), and is unwilling to apportion proper funds, jobs opportunities and safety considerations to ensure the proper running of the service. As always, workers are expected to pick up the slack. The boss says jump, and the workers are meant to ask how high. In the words of James O’Brien:

“They signed up for something and then their employers tried to retrospectively re-write the terms of engagement.”

But still, people rail (if you’ll pardon the pun) against the striking Tube workers. Why?

There seems to be a really odd mentality in this country when it comes to workers’ rights. People seem to believe that if one set of employees stands up for its rights, it takes away from everyone else. This results in a combative, “me vs you” mentality. For instance:


Apart from not really engaging with what the Tube strikes are about, these responses are representative of the views of many on social media. In fact, they’re representative of views that have been entrenched in society over the last couple of decades:

“You are lucky to have a job.”
“If you don’t like it, quit.”
“Shut up and don’t complain.”
“How dare you ask for better treatment when other people don’t get treated as well as you do.”

These arguments stem from the assumption that all of us on the middle or lower rungs of society are, in some way, pitted against each other. “You have more than me,” goes the thinking, “so I have no reason to stand up for you. In fact, I should help to drag you down to my level.” So goes much of the response to the Tube strikes: You earn more than me, so you should shut up.

If I wanted to be incendiary here, I might cite the famous Martin Niemöller poem (“then they came for the trade unionists…”) but even without evoking the idea that those who stand by and allow mistreatment are complicit in that mistreatment, it should be clear that all workers have something to gain by standing up for the rights of other workers.

When workers are mistreated, who benefits? Do you, as, let’s say, a call centre worker or a teaching assistant, benefit when Tube drivers are forced to work anti-social hours in spite of the original terms of their contracts? Do you benefit in any way from others being paid less, or forced to work in unsafe situations?

No; in fact, you suffer.

When the rights of one set of workers are chipped away, this doesn’t strengthen the rights of others. It creates a much lower threshold for what society considers to be fair and just treatment of employees. If the terms and conditions of the contracts of London Underground employees can be changed indiscriminately, then this sets a precedent for the terms and conditions of anyone else’s contracts to be changed without discussion. It means that employees as a whole have fewer rights, and feel even less justified in standing up for themselves. And who benefits from workers lower down the ladder being passive and powerless? To quote Noam Chomsky:

“…if workers are insecure, they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health.”

In other words, when workers feel powerless, their bosses reap the benefits. Strike action isn’t about you vs them. It’s about ensuring that employers – be they the government, corporations, private companies or politicians – do not impose unfair conditions on their workers for their own gain, whether that’s financial or political.

I understand that all this seems theoretical, though. In this moment, it might not seem that the Tube strikes contribute to a wider concept of workers’ rights. It might just seem that the Tube workers are unhappy – and, as they get paid quite well and enjoy working hours that some of us might consider better than our own, it can be hard for some to drum up sympathy.

So let’s take a closer look at what they’re angry about.

As shown above, this strike isn’t really about London Underground employees demanding more money. This Tube strike is about a change to working hours and conditions; the workers are not complaining that they don’t make enough money. Rather, as this Twitter post outlines, they are angry because the conditions of their employment are to drastically change. In the example given in the tweet, these changes mean that instead of working 2 weeks’ worth of night shifts per year, as their contract states, they’ll now have to work 14 weeks’ worth of night shifts.

Let’s put that in real terms.

According to Snap Childcare, nannies working overnight in the Greater London area earn between £12 and £14 per hour. Let’s say for argument’s sake that a Tube worker (let’s not forget, it’s not just Tube drivers engaged in this action) who has kids and lives alone, or has a partner/co-carer that also works nights, needs to employ a nanny for 10 hours for every night shift that they work. Assuming that a week only involves 5 days/nights of work, they might currently have to pay £13 x 10 hours for 10 nights a year. That’s £1300 per year in overnight nanny costs. If they now have to work 14 weeks of night shifts, they now have to pay £13 x 10 hours for 70 nights a year. That’s £9100, an increase of £7800 – with the proposed increase in pay for Tube workers at just 0.75% (which is £375 on a salary of £50000) with a lump sum of £250 for all workers and another £250 for drivers, signal workers and track workers. In this hypothetical, worst-case-scenario example, even with the increase in pay and the two lump sum payments, the Tube driver would end up almost £7000 worse off per year.*

However, for many Tube drivers, it’s not about childcare costs; many who have children will have partners or family members who can look after the children at night. For many, this isn’t about money at all. It’s about the loss of time with family, the loss of a healthy work-life balance, the necessity of commuting to work (potentially from outside London) in unsociable hours – as well as concerns about the safety of a service that will no doubt cater to incredibly drunk or otherwise intoxicated citizens who will be teetering about on the edge of train tracks, and which will be staffed by those not used to night shift work, and therefore who may be tired, lethargic and not at the level of concentration that such a job requires.

Shift work, in fact, carries its own health concerns. Working nights isn’t fun for anyone. A study from Surrey University last year suggested that disrupted sleep patterns, such as those experienced by shift workers, contribute to confused gene patterns, potentially making you ill in the long-term.

“But loads of people work nights” you might say. “They deal with it.” Yes, they do. But they signed up for those night shifts in good faith. The Tube workers did not; this shift work is being imposed on them without their consent.

As claimed in the both the Twitter post linked above and the article by the anonymous Tube worker, this isn’t even a choice that’s been made by TfL. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced the Night Tube before any consultation with unions had taken place. It seems that both TfL and their employees have been shafted by a politician who seeks to earn political points rather than contribute to a real improvement for all. If Boris Johnson wants to extend Tube service to run all night (which would undoubtedly be an improvement for Londoners, visitors from the rest of the country and tourists from abroad, though arguably not for black cab drivers), then he should seize the opportunity to create more jobs and invest in a sustainable and fair system. You cannot gain political capital by making the lives of the workers worse. Or rather, you can (and many do), but it is morally reprehensible to do so.

Yes, it’s frustrating today if you are trying to make it across London. Yes, it’s annoying that people whose salary might be twice your salary are complaining about their working conditions. Yes, people who work in London make a lot more money than the rest of us who don’t live in London. All these things are true.

But it’s not us against them. It’s not.

By arguing that those working in jobs with better pay, or better working conditions, or in more desirable roles don’t deserve basic rights, we diminish the rights of all workers. By fighting against those trying to stand up for their rights, we engage in a race to the bottom. As workers, we should be doing the opposite. In the words of Geoff Martin, the spokesman for the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT):

“People need to think about the fact that the reason tube drivers and train drivers have decent terms and conditions is because they’ve stood up and fought for them. We want everyone to have decent and dignified working hours. This comparison dumbs the discussion down.”

Oh, and for everyone complaining about a Tube driver’s £50k starting salary, let’s not forget that 1.265 billion passengers use the Tube annually, and between 80 and 100 people commit suicide by throwing themselves under Tube trains every year. Median annual gross wage in the City of London is £51,952, and senior City bankers earn, on average, £1.3 million per year.

Most of all, let’s not forget that one group of workers standing up for their rights doesn’t take away from yours; if anything, it strengths them.

*These numbers are pulled from the article written by the anonymous Tube worker, linked above. A BBC article cites a 2% increase for all workers and a £2000 lump sum for drivers on the affected lines – a figure that the RMT claims would only affect 1000 Tube workers out of 20,000, which they claim is a “divide and rule” tactic.