They say that lightning doesn't strike twice, but unfortunately tube drivers never seem to stop. It is expected that there will be three more tube strikes in the coming five weeks (on 27 January, 15 and 17 February), for a number of predictably dubious reasons, with the main ruckus surrounding driver’s pay and the Night Tube. The tube driver’s union, Aslef, is up in arms about the fact the government has refused to sit down with them since November to discuss the pay of their drivers -and it’s no wonder they don’t want to. This same debate has been dragging on for what seems like forever, back and forth between London Underground and some very uncompromising Union leaders.
The Night Tube was originally planned to open back in September 2015, but unfortunately it was pushed back as no agreement could be reached. The latest round of proposed strikes come after the government has already offered a 4-year pay plan for existing drivers (a compromise up from their original 3-year offer) and an agreement to hire new part-time drivers to manage the Night Tube service, in order to avoid ‘overworking’ current employees.
It all sounds rather frustrating, but the real argument behind why these strikes are so misguided comes when we break down the figures. The introductory salary for a newly-qualified tube driver is an incredible £49,673 a year, with the average driver working on average only 36 hours a week. They also enjoy other perks such as 43 days annual leave, and drivers can expect to earn as much as £60,000 after five years service. Those figures are ones that the average person yearns for. Compared to other public sector jobs, tube drivers also have a pretty nice income. The average starting salary of a teacher is only £22,023 and a fire fighter earns £21,583, despite the fact that they work 20 hours more a week and get 15 fewer days annual leave a year.
At this point, many people have lost a lot of sympathy for the tube drivers, but it gets worse. The Union leaders have repeatedly rejected London Underground’s various pay package offers, including a 2% pay rise, followed by guaranteed pay rises for the next three years, and there was even talk of a bonus scheme of up to £2000 for drivers offering to work night shifts on the new service. But when this was still met with of cries of concern about ‘forcing drivers to work anti-social hours’ (because 36 hours a week is already so strenuous), London Underground changed their strategy.
They have instead proposed to open applications to external candidates to work part-time on the night shifts. Steve Griffiths, the chief operating officer for London Underground, has said that the new part-time drivers will be “on permanent, part-time contracts with the same rates of pay and the same benefits as existing drivers.”. Sounds like a win-win situation for everyone, right? Drivers won’t be forced to work night times, and the night tube can go ahead, generating 200 new jobs and potentially contributing£6.4 billion directly to the London economy within the next 15 years.
But no, Aslef are still unhappy with this agreement, which Boris Johnson has called a “no-brainer”. Boris also said that since applications have opened for 200 new part-time drivers, more than 6,400 applications have been received- showing there’s clearly plenty of people willing to work for the current pay, and making the Union’s demands look even more unreasonable.
Striking is obviously not the answer here, and is a sign of an overly-powerful union in an industry where competition is impossible to achieve. The balance between protecting worker’s rights and the public interest is a delicate one, and in the case of the tube strikes it is becoming an increasingly important issue to resolve. Drivers already earn over double what other public workers do, for nearly 20 fewer hours work a week. It seems foolish that although Aslef’s demands continue to be met, each day of striking is expected to cost other workers and private enterprise £300 million in lost productivity, and delaying the opening of the Night Tube continues to withhold economic growth in London. It’s about time the union leaders piped down on the whole issue- if drivers are unsatisfied with their jobs, there are 6 and a half thousand others who would happily take over. Open up the labour market for tube drivers and the issues surrounding pay will quickly subside.