Some thoughts on the tube strike

Just about now, people across London will be thinking about how on earth they are going to get home. The underground system, on which so many rely, is shut down for the day due to a strike. What is the liberal approach to sorting the situation?

I am not often out late partying in London. Just over a year ago, I was down for the fantastic wedding of Ed Fordham and Russell Eagling. I was really shocked that the tube stopped running as early as it did on a Saturday night. I mean, public transport doesn’t usually run 24/7, but this was London, for goodness sake. I had a bit of a panic when I thought I’d missed the last Piccadilly Line train back to my hotel, but, thankfully, one turned up.

So, I was really pleased when I realised that there was going to be a night service on the tube. Clearly an expansion like that has consequences. Drivers aren’t used to working nightshifts so the success of the service depends on reaching an agreement with them. This has not been possible, hence the strike action. This is not some half-hearted union driven strike. The strike ballot showed over 97% in favour on an 81% turnout. Feelings are clearly running high.

Let’s think about this a little. How would you feel if you were used to working a certain pattern of hours and your employer then told you that you would have to start working round the clock? (Party staff, please don’t answer that. I know you all work pretty much round the clock anyway.) You may have other responsibilities or require additional childcare and incur extra costs if you have to change to a different shift pattern.

There is a view I’ve seen articulated in a number of places that tube drivers earn £50,000 a year and should just get on with it. Actually, I don’t hold with that. I tend to value the people who provide services to me. Every time I step on a tube train, I’m relying on the drivers to keep me safe therefore I feel that I have some obligation to support them having decent pay and working conditions. It seems that the management has been less than effective at doing what they are paid to do – manage the change in the organisation. They are imposing new conditions and rosters without proper consultation and that’s not on. Have a read of this article in the Independent which explains some of the issues:

Our members on London Underground voted overwhelmingly for strike action because the company tried to force through, without negotiation, new rosters which would mean Tube drivers would have to work an unlimited number of weekend and night shifts for no extra pay.

It’s about the impact on drivers’ lives and the potential effects on their health and the management need to show me that they are addressing these concerns. They have so far not done so.

I am not known for my sympathy for rail strikes generally. I feel that sometimes the transport union leaders enjoy reliving the 1980s a little too much and don’t always act in the best interests of their members. I also feel that public services are too often poorly managed with little regard for employees’ job satisfaction. My general rule of thumb is that if you have happy staff, you provide a better service. And TfL does not, by the looks of it, have happy staff. An FOI request, revealed in City AM earlier this year, showed that 4700 staff had been given counselling for stress between 2010 and 2014.

If Boris Johnson put more energies into finding a solution than just simply calling out the union, we might get somewhere. Also, Tory ministers should just stop talking about criminalising strike action. The bottom line is that people need to have the right to withdraw their labour.

The liberal approach would be to have some organisational model that gives staff real power and esteem. We’ve always been on about workplace democracy and maybe we should be looking in more detail about how this could be done across our public services.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • I read this article from the top of a very full and very hot London bus so I thought I would share my views as a London commuter.

    I’m not in favour of banning strikes but the actions of the transport unions are unsupportable. Tube drivers are incredibly well paid and supported by TfL compared to numerous other public service professions.

    The timing of the strike on Budget day and after the Conservatives’ election win is driven by politics not by the interests of tube workers.

    I spent 20 years as a Lib Dem member and activist but resigned 3 years ago and could not bring myself to vote for the party in May .

    I’m a liberal at heart and have been impressed with the energy and enthusiasm of #libdemfightback, but if the Lib Dems believe in siding with vested interests like tube-drivers and black taxi drivers, rather than customers and commuters they’re not the party for me.

  • I totally agree with your conclusion. We don’t allow bullying in the playground and shouldn’t in the workplace either.

    My experience is that employees have a keen and productive interest in their employing company’s health and prospects (often more than some directors) because they usually have most of their economic eggs in that basket.

    Public bodies like the Tube should have a supervisory board comprising perhaps one third employee representatives but none of the operations directors. They should approve directors’ remuneration and should have the power to fire them if necessary. Something along these lines could easily be developed into a policy that would have wide appeal – and also spark vitriolic opposition. Let battle commence.

    Germany already has something on these lines about the details of which I know little. Perhaps someone could write a post to explain their system – not that I think we should slavishly follow it but we should learn from others.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jul '15 - 6:42pm

    I’ll always listen to strikers, but always of course with a small dose of conservatism that makes up my thinking.

    The strike ballot seems very strong, so they probably have a point.

    I think we should reach out to unions, but with a bit of carrot and stick. I think some union rights should be curtailed, but having unions on boards, which I think they do in Germany, could be a good idea.

    Personally I’m not happy with the way strikers only lose one day pay. It shouldn’t be like a holiday and it affects others.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Jul '15 - 7:29pm

    @Rob: Is it not possible to be on the side of workers getting a fair deal and of commuters? Surely all being happy is the best outcome for everyone because you get a better service delivered by motivated and positive staff members if you treat them properly.

    I’m not normally a fan of strikes by rail unions because I think they’re often trying to relive the 80s, but this one has a point – and if commuters showed that they backed a more sensible and flexible approach to the changes, then it could be win/win for everyone.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jul '15 - 7:55pm

    Rob, I know what you mean, but sometimes the vested interest is the big corporate, such as Uber who had been running an illegal service in France undercutting taxi drivers who had paid thousands for a licence.

    It actually turned violent, which I don’t approve of, but clearly taxi drivers are going to get annoyed if a big corporate is ignoring the law and not following regulations that others have to abide by themselves.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jul '15 - 8:03pm

    PS, I should say that Uber were “allegedly running an illegal service”. Two executives are going on trial in France on 30th Sep.

  • Uber’s activities in France don’t say anything about their activities here, though, Eddie. In the cities they operate in the UK, they operate like many large private hire firms do. If their actions in London are illegal, so are, arguably, are Addison Lee’s in London or Amber Cars in Leeds.

    We should be supporting innovative businesses such as Uber, subject to proper regulation. And it appears that proper regulation is pretty much what they’re subject to already.

  • Little Jackie Paper 9th Jul '15 - 8:50pm

    ‘How would you feel if you were used to working a certain pattern of hours and your employer then told you that you would have to start working round the clock?’

    I don’t think I’d quite have put it that way. But this is a reasonable point I think. The implication of 24 hour tube I take as being 24 hour businesses and 24 hour everything. With the staff being there round the clock. Now, of course some people might think this is wonderful, ‘progress,’ presumably the people who won’t be affected. Yes, yes I’m sure there’s some study somewhere that says £X trillion would accrue to the economy from 24 hour opening and so on. And of course there’s always the internet etc.

    And Caron if you missed the tube there are night buses, taxis and indeed Boris Bikes. You might have had to travel, you did not have to do so by tube.

    But overall I do have to ask, however unlovely the tube driver unions can be, whether there are wider questions here. Do we want 24 hour everything, with all it entails? Do we prioritise investment in improving transport services in peaks before trying to run 24 hours? I do appreciate, of course, that people will have different answers – but there are questions here that go beyond unions and strikes.

  • Its hard to escape the conclusion that if the Unions ran the network it would operate between about 10.30am and 2pm. Extending the hours will create jobs, its not like other industries where work is outsourced and offshored. I have a lot of time for them but they should just be honest about the motivation for this, which is the same motivation that had them ransom the city during the Olympics.

  • John Tilley 9th Jul '15 - 8:56pm

    Most London commuters (I was one for 40 years) know the difference between the reality of tube, bus and rail services and the nonsense that sometimes gets reported in the media. It was a pleasant change to read Caron’s considered article here.

    It is most definitely possible to support the commuter and the tube worker.

    The results of last year’s London Borough Elections and this year’s general election in London constituencies make a Tory victory look extremely unlikely in 2016.

    Boris Johnson has already run away and his irresponsible failures as Mayor with ill-considered policies and failures on housing, planning and transport have upset a lot of voters. He got away with bluff and bluster twice, but even he realised it would not work a third time.

  • nvelope2003 9th Jul '15 - 9:44pm

    There was slow moving traffic in South London at about 4.30 pm and too many buses but things seemed less busy than normal by 6.00 pm, in a place where there are no tube lines but there is a main road to the South Coast.

  • I think we need to understand this not just the drivers but all Underground staff. I doubt that many will accuse the cleaners and the people who man the ticket barriers of being “greedy” the way the drivers have been. And I’m pretty sure that if I was forced to work nightshifts with only a one-off £500 payment has compensation I’d be on a picket line to.

    I came across this letter from one of the drivers on the Indy’s website earlier:

  • Tube drivers can earn £60K /yr and have 43 days leave a year : a corporal in the Royal Marines earns about £29K and has 30 days eave a year : the former requires a fraction of the skill , responsibility and ability to accept risk of the latter. The introduction of automatically controlled trains is one step closer.

    If a union supports a strike , why cannot a business which loses money as consequence sue them? The union’s s activities have denied a business their living.

  • Incredibly naive article Caron , you obviously don’t live in London and haven’t been subjected to the numerous strikes & massive disruption this union brings to Londoners on a regular basis.

    Often strike action is called for the most petty of issues and on very low turnouts with producer interests always put before consumers..

  • Mark Green
    ‘And I’m pretty sure that if I was forced to work nightshifts with only a one-off £500 payment has compensation I’d be on a picket line to.’

    If you read the letter it says that the strike is NOT about money but the refusal to work unsocial hours.

    Maybe they should talk to nurses ,ambulance drivers et al who work unsocial hours for half the salaries with much higher skill levels.

  • Sammy O'Neill 10th Jul '15 - 1:40am


    No they can’t. Which grade do you think earns £60,000? The vast majority of qualified drivers earn £49,673. A small number of driver instructors earn about £53,000. There are no higher grades of driver than this. You’re simply making numbers up.

    Having actually bothered to speak to a few people on a picket today (who were actually very friendly and chatty) rather than swallow a copy of the Daily Mail, it is obvious they have real gripes about the affect the changes will have on their work/life balance and that they aren’t just trying to get a nice pay rise. The reality is that apparently TFL have failed to recruit enough staff for night tube, meaning that station staff who were never meant to have to work those shifts now face being forced to in order to make up the shortfall. Drivers also face working up to double the number of nights each year in some instances, with their rest day then on a sunday (where they have to sleep) which is not exactly conducive to family life. Add to that the total failure of the British Transport Police to recruit the number of police they require to police the service and I can see why they are so angry. I would be as well. Several of them expressed sadness that the Lib Dems had been totally silent on the issue and hadn’t expressed any support for them.

  • As a former HRC for 28 yers I would agree that if the unions had not been fully consulted over these proposals and the TfL had not listened to what appear genuine work life problems then they had no alternative to strike. But it is a bad PR programme to call for additional monies to compensate, sending a message that the genuine needs of their members could be forgotten if their pay is improved.

  • There is no real need for 24 hour operation of the tube as there is an extensive network of Night Buses which are frequent and do not have to contend with the day time traffic congestion so they are quicker than normal services. They also stop at more places so passengers do not have such long walks from Tube stations to their homes on empty streets at 2 am.

    The Tube has to be maintained at night and they have about 4 hours to do it between about 1 am and 5 am. This is not really enough and I have not seen any information on how they plan to keep up with maintenance so I suspect they will not be able to do this. Most of the system is very old and requires a great deal of work to keep it safe. The person who introduced this plan, no doubt for electoral reasons, is someone who either has no knowledge of the practicalities of operating public transport or is not interested.

    We have a 24 hour society and maybe some people like working in the middle of the night but I do wonder what the true effect on human health of this sort of life style could be. Hospitals and emergency services have to be available all the time but not tube trains. The railways are almost in a state of collapse because of the difficulty of carrying out maintenance, though of course this will be denied. Billions have to be spent on the network to make it safe and reliable but little is being done, hence the endless signal failures, points failures, breakdowns etc which make commuting so stressful. This also applies to the London Underground as even an infrequent user cannot fail to notice.

    All this obsession with all night travel needs to be reconsidered and more thought must be given to safety and human health, not just profits. At least all night buses do not need large numbers of station staff and they can be diverted when road works are being done.

  • There needs to be a full investigation of the activities of TfL which needs a colossal amount of money. There are examples of waste on an epic scale where for example buses with years of life left in them were scrapped and replaced by extremely expensive crew operated buses but whenever I use them there is rarely a conductor or “passenger assistant” present and the very dangerous practice of jumping off at traffic lights etc has been reintroduced.

  • Ryan McAlister 10th Jul '15 - 2:06pm

    Just on a point of licensing niceties, there appears to be a special condition attached to the use of that image which is not being complied with in this article…

  • Graham Martin-Royle 10th Jul '15 - 5:57pm

    Just as an aside, Boris and the rest hate all unions and plan to make it very difficult to call strikes by setting a much higher threshold than presently required. I wonder how he views the fact that this is such a well supported strike, 97% of an 81% turnout which would make it legit even under his proposed new rules.

  • Graham Evans 10th Jul '15 - 8:36pm

    The only reason that tube drivers earn so much is that for a variety of reasons their so-called training is apparently spun out to 18 months. This means that in practice the train drivers unions have the whip hand in their dealings with their employer. Compare this with a bus driver who earns far less and has a much more difficult job, both in terms of negotiating London traffic, particularly in Central London, and having to deal face to face with passengers. But of course the time to acquire a PSV is much less than 18 months, so there is a much more genuine free market in terms of the demand for labour. The DLR operates successfully without train drivers, and so could many of the tube lines. As a party we should be promoting innovation, not defending Luddite special interest groups.

  • Mark Willis 10th Jul '15 - 9:12pm

    Ok, so I’m a Lib Dem and also a Tube driver, yes we earn just under £50K a year, for that we start at 0445 on early shifts and lates finish at 0130, so we are getting up for work when others are finishing partying, and finishing work when the party is starting to get going, we do also have a small number of night shifts, they put away the last trains and bring out the first, they also run in poor weather keeping the juice rail clear with deicing fluid.

    We have to be careful of drinking, we are subject to random drug and alcohol testing as well as medicals, despite that due to our shift working type 2 diabetes is the company disease.

    If we make a mistake there are 1000 people behind my cab door who are relying on me to do the right thing and ensure their safety, we must know how to get broken trains moving (today at Moorgate and Kings X being an example), we have to requalify for that every year.

    When the papers state that we get 43 days AL that is correct, BUT we lose an hours pay a week in order to facilitate some of those days.

    We are the first on the scene of incidents, the first people on the scene weren’t Fire or Police, it was LU staff wondering what the bleep had happened, when I go to work I do not know if today is the day that I get my jumper or something worse might happen.

    To be asked by my friendly company to now start working more night shifts, but it OK here’s £250 one off, non pensionable to compensate you it is a bleeping insult, we now work far more saturdays and sundays, bank holidays are a thing of the past for us, most of us will be working taking the public to all those nice events that take place, these are family days that we lose.

    So when Tube workers and it was ALL grades who went on strike on Wednesday/Thursday are castigated, just remember that we do make a sacrifice for our “massive salary” but there are big downsides that we have to accept for that, oh and remember there are hundreds of TFL managers on far more wedge than us, but without front line staff YOU the public have NO Service.

  • David Warren 10th Jul '15 - 9:19pm

    I was a trade union rep for twenty years in a blue collar industry.

    I led and participated in a few strikes during that time, all of which resulted from unacceptable behaviour from management.

    Working people however well paid don’t take strike action lightly, they do it because they feel ignored, exploited or alienated from the actions of an employer who is taking decisions without taking the workforce with them.

    Caron is right we need some industrial democracy, a policy championed by the old Liberal party.

    If people felt fully involved at work, a lot of disputes would be avoided.

  • Mark Willis 10th Jul '15 - 9:51pm

    Right some more detail, training does NOT take 18 months, no where near, when I qualified in 2002 it took me 9 months BUT that was because of a shortage of instructors on my then line, you can typically expect a driver to qualify in about 3 or 4 months.

    We do actually appreciate our pay and conditions, but does anyone really think that we would have those without the union, the last time ASLEF were on strike was I think Christmas 2012 when the company decided to massively increase boxing day working, so virtually none of us could have that day with the family, or avoiding the family, that dispute was eventually solved by asking for volunteers and paying, New Years Eve we do run through the night, taking happy go lucky people off to celebrate the new year, then transporting the half dead human wrecks home through the blood and vomit and staff deal with that carnage.

    There is another knock on for Night tube, the affected public will be those travelling to work on a Saturday am, they will see their service reduced.

    I voted for strike action, there was no alternative for me, we keep facing tightening timetables and worse rosters with every change, all I can see now is more work, more split rest days, fewer weekends off fewer days off together, that kills family life and is unacceptable to impose that onto staff.

  • Graham Evans 10th Jul '15 - 10:34pm

    @Mark Willis I note you completely ignore the comparison with bus drivers and DLR train operators. I will defer to your claim that driver training only takes 3 to 4 months, though even this seems long in comparison with how long it takes to train a bus driver or HGV driver, whose jobs are at least as demanding as a tube driver, both in terms of responsibility and working hours. Indeed it is bus drivers who operate London’s Night Buses, not only at the weekend but throughout the normal working week. Of course the answer to your complaint regarding working hours is for the tube network to follow the example of the DLR, and eliminate tube drivers as such. That way TfL will be able to employ more people to spread the burden of unsocial hours, while improving the service to the public.

  • nvelope2003 11th Jul '15 - 3:49pm

    Strange that TfL can spend millions on running tubes all night when even Japan does not do that and there are night buses covering the area, yet there is no service of any kind on Christmas Day. I know most people would not want to work on that day but there must be many who are not from the Christian tradition and those without family responsibilities who might be glad to earn some money. The roads are full of cars but those who do not have them are forced to use expensive taxis, walk or just stay at home. A bus service at least in the Inner London area is not too much to ask. I know they were not well used 40 years ago but life is completely different from then.

  • An obvious strategy for any LibDem hoping to hold office is to work with managers, employees and passengers etc to bring about agreements in advance of any changes. As we know already, this does not happen when Tories see themselves as having a mandate to ride over any one of the above groups – by pitting one group against the rest.

    Unfortunately, making agreements of that kind does not seem to appeal to the English right now – as Tories have taught the population to only think of themselves. The system is corrupt from the top down – and not the way to run a pub let alone a country!

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