Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Support the tube workers

By the reporting of the tube strike you would get the impression that London is a city under siege by the RMT union. Guardian journalists are twittering on their journeys to work , with minute-by-minute accounts as if they were war correspondents on the frontline. This hysteria has certainly had an effect judging by the comments at work today.

But where we work in central London is no more than thirty minutes walk from any of the main London over-ground terminus stations. This, and the over-crowding at the bus-stops means that most people will have had to start their journey to work a bit earlier. In other words, it's an inconvenience not a disaster.

And if anyone thinks it’s all too easy for me who commutes on a motorcycle each day to say this, I was inconvenienced too this morning – I had to get up at the crack of dawn to go down to the local RMT picket line at 7am to offer my support.

The media demonizing of the tube workers has undoubtedly taken an effect. Many Londoners seem to see the strike as a personal affront. Quite part from the negative press campaigns, there is an economic basis to this. There’s a huge gulf now between unionized workers in the public sector – and places like my own – with largely un-unionized workers in the private sector. Particularly in small to medium manufacturing businesses. Annual negotiated agreements are unheard of – most of the time we are just pleased to keep going for another month.

Sadly this breeds a very peculiar kind of jealousy. A jealousy that resents a station supervisor earning £38k pa and a driver £40k pa, with decent conditions and overtime – the kind of packages that were once fairly universal for skilled and responsible workers. But strangely this jealousy doesn’t extend to the senior underground management who make in excess of £100k pa along with hefty (and often dubious) ‘performance bonuses’. And this jealousy completely ignores the situation of many more low paid workers on the tube – like the cleaners who only now get £7.45 an hour after winning a dispute for a living wage last year.

It’s a twisted take on the ‘race to the bottom’ with a bizarre sense of pride in leading a race where there are no prizes for the winners.

Significantly in the present recession the seminal socialist classic ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthrophists' has re-entered the best selling lists. With the massive knocks that the labour movement has taken we are almost back to a similar era in which the novel is set, when the basic ideas of class solidarity have to be patiently explained. To get to a point where, when one group - be it tube workers, oil refinery workers or car workers - does manage to secure a better deal than most they are not resented but actually applauded and aspired to.

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