Pro-strike, but against This Strike Now

I like to think that, despite living a champagne-and-caviar lifestyle, spending my time with models and rock stars, and living in a luxury penthouse [*], I’m still in touch with my left-wing roots.

As a result, I’m always slightly reluctant to denounce trade unions and strikers: had they not existed in the past, there’s a reasonable chance we’d still be in some kind of neo-Victorian exploitationist hell [**]; there are still plenty of employers playing the kind of dirty tricks that unions would be wholly justified in fighting against; and without the ultimate mutually-assured-destruction logic of striking (‘unless resolved, this strike will destroy your business and our jobs’), unions might as well not exist in the first place.

All part of the market 

In areas where employers and unions are sane and where normal commercial logic applies, the right to strike ensures that mutually satisfactory allocations of profit during the good times, or cost-cutting during the bad, fall equally on staff and employers.

This applies particularly well to skilled manual jobs, where skills are generally not directly transferable to or from other industries and therefore staff turnover is highly costly to employers and employees alike.

So it’s sensible and right that the rail industry is highly unionised. Signalling, track inspection and train driving are jobs that require a lot of intelligence, skill and training [***]; supervising semi-skilled maintenance crews is a job that’s difficult and has disastrous consequences if you mess up; and even being on a maintenance crew requires more training and is more important and responsible than a typical labouring job. And (particularly on closed systems like the Underground), people in these roles have little or no choice of employer if things go wrong.

…but it’s just not MAD enough

However, there’s a major difference between the rail industry as it is currently structured (particularly in London) and the imaginary private employer above: the rail industry is essential to our functioning and un-outsourceable – and as a result we can be sure that in the medium term, the state will ensure it stays functioning one way or another.

This wrecks union-employer bargaining: a total strike is politically and economically unsustainable from the side of the government, which is effectively the employer, while it merely involves a loss of pay for the union members.

It’s no longer a mutually-assured-destruction relationship, because the union members have no prospect of destroying their jobs – so there’s little incentive not to strike, beyond the desire to make things work out. Hence, this week’s Tube strike.

Sane unions and Crows

Following the collapse of Underground maintenance consortium Metronet, the unions were understandably concerned that former Metronet staff members (mostly semi-skilled track maintenance workers) would lose their pension benefits and that there would be lay-offs, leading to a strike threat from the RMT, TSSA and Unite unions. 

So Transport for London publicly guaranteed that pensions would be protected in perpetuity, and that no job cuts would be made at least until Metronet left administration – at which point, the normal consultation process would apply.

The fair thing to do at this point would have been to call off the strike action, and potentially restart it if and when the administrator or the new owner suggested job cuts would be made – and this is what the TSSA and Unite did.

Unfortunately, the RMT is led by a man who said in 2001 that he thought Arthur Scargill was a role model (yup, the Arthur Scargill who took control of the main union in a nationalised industry that was considered too strategically vital to substitute, and called the government’s bluff to the extent that they did substitute away from the industry, and then closed the entire thing down). So he took his members out on strike demanding assurances on ‘no job cuts ever’, which would have been unfair, unsustainable and illegal to give.

Following his role model?

As of Wednesday lunchtime, the RMT members have gone back to work despite a lack of concessions from TfL (TfL has now stated in writing to the RMT the same information it had previously stated publicly concerning the pension scheme). The union is going to decide on Friday whether this is good enough, or whether another pointless strike about nothing would be fun. So in the short term, Mr Crow has asserted his power, and everything is otherwise the same as it would have been.

But in the long term, the RMT is treading on dangerous ground.

If I were in charge of TfL, Tube Lines or Metronet’s successor, I’d be trying as hard as possible to ensure new hires were in grades and roles where the RMT had as little remit as possible, and to eliminate heavily RMT-ised jobs as much as I possibly could, in order to minimise the potential for further destructive, disruptive and pointless industrial action. For example, by closing ticket offices and making people use non-striking ticket machines instead…

And if I were in the RMT, I’d vote for someone else as leader – ideally, someone who didn’t want me to lose my job.

[*] cava, cod-roe, spreadsheets, members of failed indie bands and a fourth-floor flat, respectively.

[**] Marxists are welcome to point out at this point that we already are.

[***] the first idiot to point out ‘it doesn’t even have a steering wheel, how hard can it be?’ gets a free voucher for one Long Walk off one Short Pier.

  1. I pretty much agree with most of this. Yes, “no job cuts ever” is a ridiculous thing to ask for.

    The one thing I would quibble with is when you say “a total strike is politically and economically unsustainable from the side of the government, which is effectively the employer, while it merely involves a loss of pay for the union members”

    I don’t think that necessarily follows. One could imagine a situation where there was a particularly disruptive strike and the London authorities respond by sacking all the strikers and banning them all from using the tube for life. It wouldn’t surprise me if after a particularly long and bloody-minded strike, the majority of Londoners would be in favour of this.

  2. John B said:

    I don’t think it’s possible for the government to do that without being lynched, as I can’t see how you could sack the strikers without taking 3-6 months to train up replacements (hence Tube closed for 3-6 months, hence lynchings).

  3. Andy kelly said:

    “..still in touch with my left-wing roots”

    And yet totally out of touch with the events leading to the miner’s strike.

    I suspect you are in the ‘I support workers taking action – until it affects me branch of lefft-wing thinking’

  4. John B said:

    What’s your narrative of the miners’ strike then?

    I thought the general consensus was: McGregor wanted to close uneconomic pits; Scargill took the entire industry out on strike because he thought the NCB would back down; so Thatcher decided to close the whole thing down to teach him and the other unions a lesson…

  5. Mark Rushton said:

    As much as personalising a strike is a favoured technique of daming them – you fail to mention whether there was a ballot.

    You know, the sort of thing that gives the workers the choice whether to strike or not.

  6. John B said:

    Didn’t seem especially relevant, since obviously a ballot is required to legally have a strike and there’s no suggestion that this strike was illegal.

    As it happened, just under 50% voted yes; just over 50% abstained.

  7. Al said:

    That would be tha’s left wing roots down pit in Guildford John? Good to see you drifting to the right…Mwuhahaha (Is this how you spell evil laughter?)

  8. Mark Rushton said:

    “Didn’t seem especially relevant, …. As it happened, just under 50% voted yes; just over 50% abstained.”

    It’s relevant because you seem to want to personalise this strike as being purely the responsibility of one person. Which is pure distortion.

    As for your analysisEven Alistair Campbell would turn his nose up at that spin. True only 51% voted – but that doesn’t mean that they were in any sense abstaining. Of the remainder 98% (!) were in favour. You do know how democracy works don’t you ?