Tube strike: real reason why Boris wants tough new laws

Mayor is thinking ahead of today's Underground strike to the impending battle over driverless trains

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:48 ON Wed 5 Feb 2014

TODAY’S strike on the London Underground, which has disrupted hundreds of thousands of journeys into work, will almost certainly lead to a Tory election manifesto pledge to toughen trade union laws, it emerged this morning. 

But will the new measures go as far as Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London, would like? Probably not.

Boris went on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning to renew his call for the rules on secret ballots to be toughened. He wants it made illegal for a union to call a strike without gaining the support of more than half the balloted workforce.

At the moment, the threshold is 50 per cent of those who actually return their the ballot papers: this means that in a low “turnout”, it is possible for a strike to be called based on the wishes of only a minority of the union workforce, while the silent majority is ignored.

In the case of the current Tube strike, for instance, out of 3,356 votes cast by RMT members, 2,567 were in favour of strike action. BUT only 40 per cent had returned their ballot papers.

Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, said Downing Street is already working on a manifesto pledge to tighten the laws for legal strikes, but favours alternatives to Boris’s proposal, such as the introduction of French-style minimum service agreements with unions, voluntarily limiting the scope for strike action by negotiation.

“They are also examining tightening the rules governing ballots to give unions less flexibility on the timing of strike action after the ballot itself,” Robinson said.

Boris is undaunted by Downing Street's rejection of his plan so far. He knows many grassroots Conservative supporters would back a Boris Law to control the unions.

The idea of raising the threshold for a legal strike to 50 per cent of the balloted union workforce is unfinished business stretching back to the years of Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher introduced the need for legal ballots with a lower threshold shortly before the miners' strike in 1984 with a ban on secondary picketing. She held back from requiring 50 per cent of the workforce to give their approval for strike action because she adopted a gradual approach to tightening trade union law.

But there’s nothing gradual about Boris Johnson’s wishes. He told Nick Robinson: "We will continue to be vulnerable to this kind of pointless strike action unless and until we get that legislation.”

Boris said he would also favour banning those in essential public services from strike action, as happens in some other capitals. “There are plenty of other capital cities around the world that have a total ban on strikes in essential public services,” said Boris. “The government has decided not to go for that. They are wrong.”

The 48-hour strike which began yesterday evening is over the mayor's plans to close ticket offices and move entirely to automated ticket machines. Staff would be reduced by voluntary redundancies, and some would be redeployed on platforms. The two unions involved, the RMT and the TSSA, have refused to accept job cuts.

On Twitter, David Cameron said the "shameful" strike would bring "misery to millions of Londoners".

But Bob Crow and Manuel Cortes, leaders of the RMT and the TSSA, have accused Johnson of refusing to meet them to discuss the ticket office closures. Crow resorted to ringing up Boris yesterday at LBC Radio where the mayor was hosting a phone-in show and trying to negotiate over the air. Johnson refused, and told Crow to get round the table with his negotiators.

Labour's leader Ed Miliband said it was "deeply regrettable" that no negotiation or meetings with the mayor and Transport for London seemed to have happened.

The public may feel they are the meat in the sandwich as they try to find alternative ways to get into work today, but Boris appears determined not to give way. The real fear of the RMT is that it is a dry run for the eventual removal of all drivers on the London Underground and a move to automated trains.

That is why the mayor knows that the law on legal strike action by the public services will need to be tightened if the Tories can win the 2015 general election. · 

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How about balloting the people of London? I suspect we would vote overwhelmingly for staffed ticket offices and trains with drivers. Getting rid of them certainly wasn’t part of Boris’s manifesto and if it had been, he would have been most unlikely to have been elected. All the talk of a Boris law is a complete distraction from the issue, which concerns the safety and perceived safety of public transport in London.

Like all of these "rationalisations" and "rightsizing" the removal of jobs is a double edged sword. Yes, TfL will cut its immediate costs and remove a layer of what they consider to be bolshie railwaymen by this action. Good for TfL, but it also means that a number of relatively unskilled personnel will be jettisoned onto the job market and won't universally get alternative employment. They will go on the dole, and cost the government in benefits, lost taxes, etc., etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseum. If TfL were to keep them employed, yes, their costs would not be reduced, but rail fares currently do not reflect the cost of service provision anyway, so keep the workers working, making them feel like they have a purpose, make the stations safer because of more staff in place, maintain the money-go-round that a paid job delivers and while TfL may spend more, the country will actually be better off.

Remind me - did Boris get 50% of the votes of all people eligible in the mayoral elections?
And did he say in his manifesto that there would be no closures of ticket office?
Pretending to be a buffoon doesn't stop you being a liar...

I don't listen to the Etonian twat any more he speak with forked tongue.

The_Engineer

How will the country be better off if we continue to give incomes to people who create no value? (assuming the ticket machines do the job as well...since operators use machines, I see no reason they will not).

Why should a politician get 50%? We *have to* have an outcome in elections. We don't have to have strikes.

OK, a fair question, but think about it: you give incomes to people who create no value whether they are doing a trivial task on the railways or if they are on the dole, so the quick, shallow answer is "the country won't be better off"...but then think about it a bit more, and you will see that the people with jobs feel like they are contributing or at least not idle, they are a better example to their children, they become part of the tax regime and generally don't become isolated, socially, financially or mentally by unemployment. If you could guarantee that the kind of people who leave TfL will all get jobs, then your point is made, but in the present financial environment, you can't make that guarantee, and so some employment, even as trivial as being a ticket clerk at least gives the person concerned some self-worth, and at the same time, might make stations a better, safer place...You might as well spend money on keeping people happy and employed as spending (probably more, in the long run) money for them to sit around on the dole.

" shallow answer is "the country won't be better off".."

But they are paid more in work than on the dole. If we don't allow people to be unemployed, we will never move on as industries/jobs/technologies come and go.

I'd agree it is best to move slowly, if possible (maybe not replace people as they retire/change jobs or give people warning of redundancy.). And I agree there is value in keeping people working for social reasons and to maintain a work ethic and now is a bad time to have redundancies...though if we have an economic upturn there may be jobs in London.

You raise an interesting point:"But they are paid more in work than on the dole"...numerically, yes, but I wonder what the figures would be like after tax, NI, VAT, cost of fuel to get to work, etc. is extracted from their pay-check. I don't disagree, I just don't have the data to agree or disagree reliably.

I wouldn't. And of my friends and colleagues, pretty much everyone who's seen how smoothly driverless trains work overseas is only to keen to see them introduced here. They're already in use (or being planned) in literally hundreds of rail lines; the RMT luddites are fighting the inevitable.

Doubting that workers should add value is exactly the same issue that Milton Friedman and others have highlighted in the quip that "if it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels."

Throughout history, labour-saving devices have replaced human labour where it was no longer adding value. Inevitably, redundant individuals are unhappy about this: think of the original 15th-century 'saboteurs' or the 19th-century Luddites who sought to prevent automated looms and mass production. Yet the social gains are indisputable.

I've little doubt that we'll look back at objections to automated trains and ticket dispensing in exactly the same light.

Do we, though? The Belgians ran without an elected government for a while and the earth didn't open up and swallow them. Some might say that a benevolent dictatorship would be a better solution...I don't know