Thursday, 9 July 2015

Tube strikes, democracy and the idiot commenters

From the vantage point of the pinnacle of electoral support attained by the Tories it is very difficult to look down on anyone else.  Considering the glee with which they are stripping the vestiges of representative government, for example through the contemptuous "Tory votes for English laws" scam, any attempt to denounce trade union members who exercise their ability to withdraw their labour within the law should be seen as the risible hypocrisy that it is.

Inconvenient strikes may be, but they are a legitimate approach to management when culture is inept and bullying, and where trust has broken down through combinations of bungled negotiations and a lack of confidence in the process leading to an equitable result.  In other cases they may be an abuse of power and position, but these are generally few and far between, given both the economic deterrent to the individual through lost earnings and the significant hoops that union members must jump through in order to make actions legitimate.

What always amuses me is that the Tories have acquired a retinue of dog-whistling fools, not all of them employed in Central Office, whose main aim is to patrol the internet with a set of claptrap and a level of abuse that can be summarised as follows:

  • I am prepared to be walked over at work as I have neither the imagination nor the economic power to change the matter, and I am deeply grateful for having being given a vile job in which I can nurture a sense of grievance and envy against those who do better than I do;
  • I don't actually know what other people do at work, but I assume that it must be very simple and therefore they don't deserve the right to withdraw their labour;
  • What these evil strikers are doing is stopping me from going to work, and my rights trump their rights at all times;
  • I am too stupid to understand that the labour market's functioning is based around the transactional implications of "market" - if workers have a grievance, the legal mandate and the willingness to withdraw their labour this is entirely legitimate.  The proposition that there is a symmetry that implies management has no right therefore to remove jobs or propose any change would cause both brain cells to malfunction simultaneously;
  • Despite being totally ignorant of the details of any situation, I am prepared to comment that people "earn too much", their job levels are unskilled compared to mine, and that they are either "scum" or "dinosaurs" for daring to challenge a race to the bottom;
  • They should all be sacked as anyone can do their jobs - and I cannot understand that this couldn't happen overnight as their replacements would need recruitment, training and the removal of those without the aptitude or competence thereafter;
  • I think everyone should tug their forelocks and accept whatever they are given by their betters;
  • In the case of the Tube strikes, I am not able to appreciate the irony that the "crap service" is principally the responsibility of the management whose actions are supported uncritically.

To achieve the level of support for strikes that the London Underground unions have managed seems to be remarkable and totally counter to the narrative that management and the troll-feeders are putting out.  From long experience, union membership is usually seen as an insurance policy, and in unionised workplaces industrial and personal relationships can be entirely productive both in terms of dealing with routine issues and improving communications across the organisation.  To have reached the stage where over 70% of those voting in the least-militant union are prepared to endorse losing pay and facing the cretinous abuse outlined above suggests that there is something wrong with an organisation.

What is even more ironic is that most of the recent ballots reported on would have been legitimate votes even under the latest proposals from the Tories to further restrict the opportunities for striking, and much stronger than the mandate that either Cameron or Johnson received from their respective electorates.  The level of restriction that the more unthinking, anti-liberty Tories would want to impose on collective action is breathtaking - it resembles the level of control and constraint that veers towards the totalitarian.  It will also prove counterproductive, as if it drives action towards the unofficial and the wildcat it will remove the very controls that its half-baked publicity-seeking proponents wish to pretend they want.

In the case of the current Tube dispute, the issues are complex and not, primarily, around pay.  Since the announcement of the closure of ticket offices, and the consequential staff reduction, the industrial relations issues have been toxic and bubbling below the surface - occasionally resulting in strikes when there has been a particularly vicious breakdown in discussions.  Add to this proposals to run the Tube all night on Fridays and Saturdays, which is superficially attractive but fraught with problems given the need to maintain and improve the system, which appear to have been progressed without proper consultation or planning for the number of staff involved, it is hardly surprising that staff in all roles find it impossible to trust management - even before the farce of a last-minute offer with ultimatum on the side that was perpetrated on Monday.

As a Tube user, I want to see good passenger service with professional staff.  The kneejerk reaction of the commenters seems to suggest that any change proposed should not be scrutinised and agreed, and that staff have it good.  Even two journeys each day makes it clear what a horrible place to work the Tube can be - polluted, hot and overcrowded as London's population growth pushes a system well beyond its comfortable limits into the edge of danger every time there is the slightest disruption.  Working in the centre all day, underground is a challenging commitment, especially when dealing with either the knuckle-draggers or their cousins with equal senses of self-defined entitlement.

Add to this shift work, which is unpredictable and disruptive - as well as the need to maintain the ability to deal effectively with emergencies - and it becomes a commitment for which fewer and fewer people have the aptitude.  Whenever the fools rant on about train driver wages, "for just pushing a lever", I curse their ignorance of a role which may be 85% routine and repetitive, but for the other 15% requires stored and constantly-updated knowledge, and for which much of the time is isolated from both passengers and co-workers.  I personally do not want to be thirty metres below the surface with either no or an under-trained, demotivated person in charge - but that is personal preference, remembering the stalwart effort of staff during terrorist incidents and other disruption.

There is bound to be a resolution at some point.  If the Tories had been serious about reducing strikes in public services they might have been more interested in compulsory independent arbitration rather than changing ballot thresholds - but this is knee-jerk politics for the amoral Johnson and his cheerleaders rather than an attempt to reform the situation.  The inadequacies of management are a dominant theme, and by deploying the troll army, this is being obscured - any system which provided more transparency might make it clear to the more evolved end of the right that poor skills in management are often much more provocative than the issues at stake, and creating a culture that would be anathema to Victorian mill-owners is unlikely to be either stable or sustainable.  I shall now be inconvenienced, but the expression of labour's economic and collective rights is an important freedom that does not trump the ravings of the deluded.

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