By Jack Peat, TLE Editor
If you ever find yourself hankering for a public execution, take a trip to a fancy wine bar in The City and have a go at defending the industrial action taken by London Underground workers over the Night Tube. It is, as I found out to my peril on Friday evening, the very definition of how to lose friends and alienate people.
Not that I’m unfamiliar with the premise. Red wine has on many occasions been the catalyst of my discontent for ill-considered political leanings that manifests in heated ‘debates’ at the back of a taxi. In London, where the Evening Standard is considered gospel and Boris Johnson is still viewed without vehement contempt by most, these arguments seem to have become commonplace.
And so it was on Friday, when the commonly-cited but vastly misrepresentative argument that tube workers get paid too much and don’t work enough was brought up, that the proverbial excrement hit the fan.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: “Why are tube workers striking when they earn a salary of nearly £50,000 and a work 36-hour week?”
“Greedy Overpaid Train Drivers” has become the right-wing emblem of tube strike opposition much in the same way as the BNP and UKIP use “Benefit Scrounging Immigrants” to rouse the inner-xenophobe in unsuspecting people. But here’s the thing; it’s irrelevant what they earn.
The Night Tube strike is about working patterns for staff who already work unsocial hours. Drivers can work three out of four weekends and almost every bank holiday and have been doing so for years which has a ‘human’ cost which simply cannot be measured in monetary terms. As one worker told The Guardian, “For managers to come along and say we are introducing a night tube and not consult the drivers and station staff and enforce a new working pattern on them without consulting them is unethical.”
But if we must talk in figures, then consider this. There are around 3,000 drivers on the London Underground network, which by my calculations is as little as 15 per cent of the entire workforce. Drivers are among the more senior London Underground employees and would have followed a career progression not unlike the majority of other firms. Most of the staff on strike are not tube drivers but station staff who are paid considerably less. This job board advertises a starting salary of £17,000 per year for train station staff working between 37 – 39 hours per week.
For those people, having night shifts imposed on them must be difficult to stomach. When Boris Johnson first unveiled the scheme he said it would boost “our vibrant night-time economy,” before announcing 750 ticket office jobs would be lost. It’s a move that is typical of how London Underground workers have been treated throughout the process, becoming mere bystanders of a legacy campaign introduced “without consultation, and without negotiation”.
If we permit ourselves for a moment to forget about how the Night Tube will benefit us and consider how we would feel if the same conditions were imposed upon us, I can ensure you that money would be the last of your concerns. Your family, your health, your relationships and your life would take priority, so surely we owe it to others to ensure that at the very least they get a fair deal.