3 *actual* reasons people go on strike (as opposed to those invented by the press)

If you can't get to work today, you could do worse than head down to a picket line and offer your support, or at least ask a trade unionist why they have decided to strike.

Under the campaign stewardship of Lynton Crosby, the Tories have turned their fire on the trade union movement.

The party’s PR machine, together with their friends in the media, have orchestrated a well-oiled campaign to discredit trade unionists and trade unionism in general.

One way they have gone about this has been to portray any group of striking workers – from teachers to firefighters to those who work on the London Underground – as insouciant extremists looking to cause as much disruption as possible to “ordinary people”.

Missing has been any sense of nuance: people don’t go on strike to be “disruptive” or “for a laugh” or because they’re lazy. They usually walk out as a last resort to exercise the only democratic means they feel they have left when faced with an erosion of their rights.

You wouldn’t know it from reading the papers, but trade unionists go on strike reluctantly and for very specific reasons. For instance:

1)      Because jobs are being cut in a myopic attempt to save money

If, like me, you’ve ever been stranded in central London after missing the last train on the weekend I imagine there’s a good chance your spirits were lifted upon hearing the news that the tube will be open for 24 hours on weekends from 2015. I certainly was; until I found out how Transport for London (TfL) was planning to cut 1,000 jobs to pay for it.

It might be argued that because of technological advances some of the ticket office jobs facing the axe are no longer necessary – it is the hallmark of the Luddite to cling to outmoded modes of work when technological advances allow a less labour-intensive method to prevail – but there is little evidence to suggest that closing every ticket office is a smart move.

Automation can certainly be more efficient; but as anyone who as ever used an automated supermarket checkout will know, things often go wrong – things which require the help and input of a human being to resolve. People sometimes need to speak to a human being, rather than a box with wires inside it, about their train ticket.

2)      Because without the occasional strike there would be no such thing as rights at work

Confrontation is deeply unfashionable in our age of ‘consensus’ politics. Even parliament is said by some to be too ‘partisan’ (nobody seems to realise that this argument is in effect a call for a one-party state). As a consequence, workers are pilloried for ‘rocking the boat’ or characterised as bad eggs intent on implanting extremism into the minds of fellow workers when they down tools. Disagreeing with your employer is fine; doing something about it just isn’t cricket.

One is apt to forget, however, that without the occasional withdrawal of labour, workers’ rights as we know them would be practically non-existent. Don’t believe me? Then contrast the working conditions on the London Underground with those of similar jobs where there is no trade union or where there is a pliant trade union which is unwilling to strike.

According to this morning’s Spectator, it is “baffling” that workers should be willing to strike when “Transport for London isn’t asking anyone to leave, simply to be flexible”. Perhaps if the writer followed their train of thought a little further they might enquire as to what the word “flexible” actually means in practice, and who is being asked to be “flexible” and for whose benefit.

3)      Workers feel they have no option but to strike

Workers don’t enjoy going on strike. Well-paid newspaper leader writers with public school educations seem to think they do, but this is rarely the case. When workers decide to withdraw their labour they do so after a lengthy process of consultation and almost always after numerous attempts at compromise with bosses. Workers going on strike can suffer a loss of earnings and an increased feeling of enmity with management on their return to work. It’s less a case of people choosing to walk out as much as a feeling that they have no other option but to walk out.

Strike action is also democratic. Three quarters (76 per cent) of those who voted in the RMT ballot backed today’s strikes on the London Underground. Critics point out that this was based on a turnout of just 40 per cent of RMT members. While this may sound low, this level of turnout is fairly common in most elections. Mayor of London Boris Johnson was elected with turnouts of just 44.5 per cent (2008) and 37.4 per cent (2012). There is no reason why the adage that applies to politics should not apply to trade union ballots: if you don’t bother to vote, you don’t get a say over the outcome.

In sum, if you can’t get to work today, you could do worse than head down to a picket line and offer your support, or at least ask a trade unionist why they have decided to strike. You will probably find that their workplace worries are not that different from your own.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

17 Responses to “3 *actual* reasons people go on strike (as opposed to those invented by the press)”

  1. Selohesra

    Well I walked from Waterloo to St Pauls this morning – better for me than catching the Drain – thanks Bob

  2. Selohesra

    And even God does not support this strike – the rain let up and here were lovely (tory) blue skies again for my walk

  3. greg

    While that is often true with the RMT etc it’s something completely different. The tube drivers are using their scarcity and leverage of the vital nature of the tube to London to extract far far more money that they are worth.

    Bus drivers do a far harder job (tube drivers now mostly just push a button or two) but are paid half the rate of train drivers because you can go out and get a bus driver’s licence in a couple of weeks from a provate provider. Only TfL do tube training and it takes longer.so it’s hard drive down prices to something more realistic without the tube getting shut down for months through strikes.

  4. Ted Noble

    I really want to have a cheaper underground network. I also really want people to keep their jobs. But we can’t have it both ways.

  5. Ben Donnelly

    I agree with most of this, however regarding the ticket offices. The staff there actually do not have the means to sort out issues when things go wrong with the automated system. They are powerless to help you even when you explain to them exactly what’s wrong and what needs to be corrected. In the case of most problems, all they are able to do is give you a premium rate phone number so you can spend a fortune getting your problem solved. There are solutions to this problem that don’t involve closing the ticket offices, but TfL have neglected to implement any of them for years.

  6. Ned

    As I understand it TfL issued 90 day notice of redundancies before sitting down to negotiate with RMT. Or in otherwords we can talk but unless you come round to our way of thinking within 90 days we will proceed with the redundancies. Onthat basis there seems little to talk about.

  7. Alison Piearcey

    More money than they’re worth? How do you know how much they’re worth? Perhaps they think that having done a challenging qualification, and providing a vital service, in unpleasant conditions (been on the Tube rarely, it’s bad when air is rationed) – they think they might be worth a share of the vast profits that TfL pockets

    Also days months.

  8. Alison Piearcey

    Actually, we can. Maybe the company could make slightly less profits in the short term in return for investment in people – leading to longer term survival?

  9. Cherryblossomfeet

    The law dictates the 90 day consultation period, not TFL. The 90 days allows the company and workers to consult formally to an agreed outcome.

  10. Sparky

    What ARE you on about? TfL is not a private company, it is a local government authority. It doesn’t exist to make money, it is there to provide a transport infrastructure for greater London. Until very recently TfL didn’t even cover its costs of providing the tube. Any any excess ‘profits’ as you call them, are not ‘pocketted’ by anyone, they are used by the authority to subsidize its other operations because it’s part of government. Honestly, the depth of left-wing ignorance about companies and profits is astounding,.

  11. Sparky

    Tell me, do you spout that completely factually incorrect ( see my reply to your other comment ) nonsense around the student union bar? I wonder what other topics you hold strong opinions on that you don’t understand.

  12. Tams

    Ok, lets look at this. Not so long back, Boris Johnson said in an election manifesto that whilst he is Mayor, not a single ticket office will be closed down. Now fast forward a few years. Just a couple of months ago, TFL announced that some tube lines would operate a 24 hour service at weekends. All sounded great. But to do this, it has to pay for itself. How is that being financed? By closing all ticket offices. That is going back on one of his election pledges.

    Ok, all of the network has automated ticketing, so being realistic, there is not much scope for ticket offices, or so you would think. But TFL say that there will always be station staff to help with any queries. Fine when a station is quite, but most stations in Zones 1 through to 5 are busy most of the time, so the station staff will not really have time to deal with any queries, more so at peak times or in times of disruption. At least when the ticket office is open, the staff there can have the time to deal with queries, plus helping and advising tourist.

    So to me, the solution is that TFL find other ways of financing the 24 hour weekend service and keep the ticket offices open. I would propose that to self finance, they operate a night time premium fare from 00:30 till 05:30. Just put an extra 50p on a single zone ticket, and £1:00 extra on 2 zones plus travel.

  13. Tim

    Also worth pointing out that the vast majority of drivers are ASLEF members and not RMT. ASLEF are not out on strike but their members will more than likely refuse to cross any picket line they come across while trying to get into work.

  14. Alison Piearcey

    They produce a business plan, so they think of themselves as a business. The word ‘service’ is foreign to the current shower, unless in the context of plates.


    If there is no private ownership involved, why do they have an Investor Relations department?

  15. MoronMcdoublechin

    Tory retard alert

    report for putting down u nonce

  16. Sparky

    1. All manner of not-for-profit organisations produce a business plan. HM Revenue and Customs produces a business plan. Oxfam produces a business plan. It is merely a financial planning and mission statement. It is required to this because it needs to show government and fare payers how it intends to plan for the service in future. It doesn’t mean that the organisation has the legal status of a profit-making company.

    2. TfL produces annual accounts because it is required to under financial transparency regulations.

    3. It has an ‘investor relations’ section so that anyone granting TfL credt, such as contractors or suppliers of building materials can see it’s creditworthiness. It has nothing to people buying shares in TfL. You can’t buy shares in Tfl. It isn’t a public listed company.

    4. No-one draws ‘profits’ from Tfl. That’s because it is part of government.

    I’m right and you’re wrong. I wonder what other vociferous views you have that are similarly based on complete ignorance. You have this black-and-white view of the world about evil, greedy businesses but you don’t even know what a business is, or whether you’re even talking about one.

Leave a Reply