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Viva Bob Crow

02/14/2014

Bob Crow 2

It’s 6.26am and the crowded number eleven bus is edging its way down Whitehall. The notice at the front indicates that the bus’s capacity of eighty includes room for eighteen people to stand on the lower deck but there’s easily twice that number squeezed on here and people sat on the stairs. It reminds me of one of them sardine-packed post-match buses back into town from Old Trafford but without a beered-up “he’s here, he’s there, he’s every-fookin-where, Brian McClair” sing song. It’s too early for a sing song. Instead there are nervous glances at watches and the regular ring-a-ding-ling of mobile phones.

Across the aisle an east European woman is on her mobile giving directions to someone who appears to have turned up at Canning Town station not realising that there’s no tube trains today until 7am. The phone of the bloke stood next to me rings and he grabs it from his pocket to reveal the caller ID “cleaning boss”. There follows a brief conversation as he apologises and confirms that he is on his way and will be in work shortly. I ask him if he’s alright and he smiles and says that he was meant to be at work at six. He left home in Dagenham at half past four and a couple of hours later he’s still on his way across the capital. Usually he’d hop on the District Line but today’s the first day of a forty eight hour tube strike.

It’s a reminder that for a significant proportion of Londoners, tube strike or no tube strike, the daily journey to work often begins at daft o’clock as trains and buses ferry them into central London to cleaning, catering, decorating, construction and other low paid jobs too often taken for granted. There are not many suits on this bus. Their poverty wages deny them access to a home close to their workplace so they’re forced into a daily trek to work from the low rent margins of the city. Any hiccups in public transport can mean an anxious journey that could result in the loss of their job if they are late. There’s no “working from home” on a laptop or lame excuses for being late for these grafters. They represent an almost invisible army slipping into work when the rest of us are still tucked up in bed.

The RMT and TSSA unions are striking over Transport for London proposals to close all tube station ticket offices with the loss of nearly a thousand jobs. TfL claim that only three percent of tube journeys involve people using a ticket office these days as most people use Oyster cards and top them up using machines or on-line. I’m wary of this statistic as I regularly see lengthy queues for ticket offices in the city centre. Many people, particularly tourists, use them as a means not only to buy tickets but to get advice on the best route to take to their destination. Others simply prefer interacting with another human being rather than a machine. And perhaps most importantly, there’s the issue of safety. How safe do people feel wandering through a dimly lit, unmanned underground station late at night or first thing in the morning?

Tube strike 2

London’s comedy mayor Boris Johnson campaigned vociferously against the closure of manned ticket offices in the 2008 mayoral election and restated this commitment in 2010. Predictably, little attention has been focused on this whopping U-turn by a media whipping itself up into a “how dare they go on strike” frenzy with the RMT leader Bob Crow once again the chief villain. To make matters worse, Bob’s recently been on holiday to Brazil. Socialists, of course, aren’t allowed to go on holiday. Not unless it’s a week at Butlin’s in Skeggy.

Predictably the strike is roundly condemned by the right wing press as tantamount to treason and attention is focused on the impact on commuters and businesses. Statistics are trotted out about how much money the strike will cost the London economy. Fifty million pounds a day is the latest figure plucked out of thin air as if everything in life can be reduced to pounds and pence. Later in the day and the local telly news is full of descriptions of “hellish” journeys to and from work and Tory MPs and businessmen queue up to describe how the strike damages London and Britain as a place to do business and ruins our reputation.

At one station an angry commuter asks Johnson when he is going to take on the unions and prevent them from going on strike and inconveniencing his journey to work. Indeed there is much debate about the tightening of employment laws so that strikes can only be called if more than half of a union’s membership vote for it. “We could look at a ballot threshold” offers Johnson adding that “it is outrageous that London should be held to ransom by this tiny minority”. Some 77% of RMT union members voted in January in favour of strike action from a 40% turnout. Not bad considering that the turnout in the London mayoral election of 2012 was 38% with Johnson elected with 44% of the vote.

Tube strike 1

The irony of much of this is that many low paid workers in London and the rest of the country need a strong trade union movement. With the rise of casual labour and zero hours contracts, too often low paid workers are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers keen to make a fast buck and with little regard for employment rights. In addition, as journalist Seumas Milne highlights, unions also represent “the only force still connected to mainstream politics which sits outside the corporate merry-go-round and gives political access to working class people”. What’s urgently needed is more union action not less.

The following Tuesday a giddy email pings into my work inbox at lunchtime. Sent only a few minutes after the RMT announce the suspension of a further two day tube strike it claims to be “very excited” that the strike has been called off and that we can now enjoy a “less squashed” and “stress free” journey to and from work. I’ll be honest, when I read the email there was a part of me that felt disappointed that the second strike won’t be going ahead. Yes, a tube strike buggers up my journey to work. But it’s a modest price to pay for the preservation of workers’ rights to take industrial action. I couldn’t give a monkey’s how much it’s costing per day. Some things are more important than profit.

I resent the implication that somehow I’m part of some plucky, wholesome commuter army bravely battling our way to work dodging the bullets of the union “baddies”. As a nation we ought to be proud that there are people prepared to take a stand against bullying, lies and hypocrisy. This ought to enhance our country’s reputation not damage it. If it comes to a choice between a nation that’s permanently “open for business” or one that collectively grows some balls and takes on the Bullingdon Club bullies, I know where I stand. Viva Bob Crow.

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From → London, Politics

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