Why it’s OK to dislike Bob Crow


12:00 pm - August 21st 2008

by John B    


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Bob Crow, the leader of the RMT rail workers’ union, is one of the less popular men in London due to his union’s propensity to go on strike at, apparently, the slightest provocation (most recently, a 5% pay rise, and someone being sacked for punching a customer – although I’ve got a theory about the 5% one).

And indeed, as someone who has to go to work, I irrationally hate and despise Mr Crow and the RMT for interfering in this already unpleasant process – in the same way you hate and despise the ‘person taken ill at Temple’ and hope the ‘person under a train at Moorgate’ is thoroughly squashed. But these hatreds are obviously unfair, and they disappear once you’re out of the tunnels and back in the real world…

Many people on the left – notably London’s Green Party, as well of plenty of bloggers, feel that disliking Mr Crow and the RMT is equally unfair. Unlike most union bosses, who’re New Labour sycophants obsessed with knighthoods rather than protecting their members, Mr Crow sticks up for his people and ensures they get the best deal.

But I’m sceptical that this is true.

British union leaders traditionally behaved like Crow. As a result of this antagonistic relationship, companies sought to replace their workforce with machines, foreigners employed abroad, and foreigners employed here. As a result of that, although plenty of British-designed goods are still manufactured, many by British companies and quite a few in the UK, manufacturing employment is at its lowest since the Industrial Revolution. And so is union membership…

Meanwhile in Germany, union leaders have traditionally behaved like the ‘knighthood-chasers’, working co-operatively with companies to maximise efficiency and share the benefits. As a result, Germany still has a great deal of highly skilled domestic manufacturing industry employing a great many people.

How does that relate to London, though? You can’t outsource Tube driving to China – so surely the RMT is absolutely right to stick up for its chaps?

Well… if I were in charge of long-term strategic transport planning in London, the fact that the unions are entirely uncooperative despite transport workers’ high wages and good job conditions would lead me to eliminate as many highly-skilled manual jobs as possible from the network, using as much automation as possible – even where it would be cheaper to use skilled manual labour (it’s not a coincidence that France’s manufacturing industry is far more automated than Japan’s).

Given the UK’s ban on secondary action, I’d also try to ensure that any network expansion plans were handled separately from LU, relying on private-sector employers – even when it would be theoretically cheaper to do it in-house. After all, if each line is run by a separate private sector organisation then only that company’s staff can go on strike over a particular dispute.

It would take a long time for these changes to work through. But the end result would be to render Crow’s men obsolete, eventually destroying a set of well-paid working class jobs that both sides of the dispute would sooner continue to exist.

Of course, I’m not in charge of long-term strategic transport planning in London. But the people who are have decided to eliminate as many highly-skilled manual jobs as possible from the network, using as much automation as possible – in signalling systems, train driving, and even ticket offices.

They’ve also ensured that all transport network expansion plans in London since 1987 (with the exception of the Jubilee Line extension and the short tube extensions to new Heathrow terminals) were handled separately from LU by discrete private sector organisations like the DLR, London Overground.

And I think I can guess the reason why.

This is all fine for Mr Crow – he’ll be a long-retired, if not long-dead, hero by the time the changes really bite. But it’s shoddy for people leaving school and joining the network now, who’ll discover in middle-age that their well-paid job-for-life isn’t one of those at all.

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About the author
John Band is a journalist, editor and market analyst, depending on who's asking and how much they're paying. He's also been a content director at a publishing company and a strategy consultant. He is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy and also blogs at Banditry.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,London Mayor ,Trade Unions

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Reader comments


Does he have pleny to crow about?

This post makes a lot of sense.

‘Given the UK’s ban on secondary action, I’d also try to ensure that any network expansion plans were handled separately from LU, relying on private-sector employers – even when it would be theoretically cheaper to do it in-house. After all, if each line is run by a separate private sector organisation then only that company’s staff can go on strike over a particular dispute.’

And that’s exactly what has happened. The people who are striking aren’t the drivers – they’re the engineers and the cleaners, mainly, and those are outsourced to external companies. The companies claim that pay and conditions are the responsibility of TFL, and vice versa. That, in fact, is one of the big things the strikers want – to be brought back in-house, and an end to spurious third-party sackings and physical and sexual abuse, particularly of women workers.

The reason Crow and the RMT are relatively successful and relatively militant is because they can afford to be: their bargaining power is still immense in a country where the worth of ordinary workers is lowering every day. The RMT have the power to bring the city, including its financial quarters, to a standstill, and there’s bugger all TFL can do but listen to their demands. If that kind of power applied across the board, the poor would have far more bargaining power.

Until, as John B makes the point, they get to the stage where so many parts of the network are automated that such a bargaining power is lost. It’s all well and good looking at the short term, I think it’s good that people like John here are looking to the short term.

But then what’s your solution? That workers should be quiet and take what they’re given because otherwise they’ll be replaced by machines?
Very liberal of you….

Some of these workers earn more than twice as much as I do. Whether they are working class or not, they are certainly not poor. And in the zero-sum game of strike action, other workers will end up paying for their actions. Ah well… the DLR seems to work quite well:)

“Very liberal of you…”

So long as they are not indentured in service, that is perfectly liberal. If someone makes them better offer somewhere else, they are free to take it.

Which workers earn twice as much as you do? The tube cleaners, who are the strikers this week, certainly don’t. They earn a little over the minimum wage, which is not a living wage for London, when forced overtime is taken into account.

And no, the point is that there aren’t ready better offers elsewhere. Not for immigrants and/or single working-class mothers with few qualifications. So what’s your solution? People who don’t have the skills to be employed further up the career ladder should – er, stay poor and abused?

Note too that these strikes aren’t, in fact, just about money. They’re about the sexual harrassment that workers face from third-sector bosses, the appalling working conditions, the lack of breaks, the third-party sackings. The fact that working as a tube cleaner is a terrible job which could quite easily be made more bearable. Everybody has a right to dignity in work. That’s what these workers want.

“That workers should be quiet and take what they’re given because otherwise they’ll be replaced by machines?”

Not at all, but that they should recognise that if you put yourself in to a situation of holding all the cards to not be surprised if somehow the “opposition” find a way to balance the table or worse. As John says, there are other ways in dealing with those you’re constantly in “conflict” with and they are almost always more effective in the long term than strikes…though maybe not in the case of our tube network at this moment in time I’ll admit. But what point is having that effectiveness if in the long term the workers lose all support from non-unions and end up in the shit for real?

Until, as John B makes the point, they get to the stage where so many parts of the network are automated that such a bargaining power is lost.

Well, the Tube should be nationalised anyway.

I think both points stand – excessive militancy does lead to long term issues.

While at the same time the tube companies pay pittances to certain workers that is barely enough to cover basic living.

There are very different considerations at work for skilled manual workers like Tube drivers and maintenance staff, and unskilled workers like the Tube cleaners.

The skilled manul group has significant power over its employers; the threat to withdraw labour is serious and credible, and the only opportunity for the employer to substitute is in the very long term (and it’s possible to share the benefits of improved efficiency and higher revenues between workers and management, unless idiots play it as a zero-sum game). So unionisation makes a lot of sense as a way of defending the roles, as long as the union leaders aren’t idiots.

The unskilled group doesn’t; they could be replaced tomorrow by anyone from Marx’s reserve army with no discernible difference to how well the job was done, so unionisation is completely pointless. We need to protect these people from exploitation – but the way to do that is to lobby government to enforce minimum wage, harrassment and working conditions laws for everyone.

I don’t know enough about the inner processes, so I won’t comment if the strikes each individually are wrong, however I do wonder how much collaberative process negotiations over working conditions and pay do take. As John says, it seems as though the union would rather just jump straight to the strike stage…it’d be interesting (from a non-Londoner point of view) to know more about how the union and workforce approach the negotiation of their requests.

Followup to me @ 12: a very concrete example of the two groups’ differing power is that the strikes by cleaners that Laurie highlights have had absolutely no effect on anyone (aside from making it easier to find a paper when travelling during the day), whereas the Tube Lines strike would have closed three lines and quite possibly the whole network…

As I was trying to explain, their situation is immiserated by Crow’s lot, many of whom do earn large sums. Immigrants are, in the main, here because they prefer their pay and conditions to working elsewhere. Many other immigrants work voluntarily below minimum wage in other sectors in London. They can’t strike (they are working in the grey economy) but they still need to pay for their bus and tube tickets to get to work, and if they can’t get to work, they won’t get paid. Will you stand in solidarity with better off workers, to punish those with fewer rights?

As for single working mothers, well it is always going to be hard work to earn to bring up children alone. I am assuming most of them made a choice at some point to have a child despite those difficult circumstances and though I don’t approve of that choice and feel it has made them worst off, I wouldn’t want to stop them making it (that would be illiberal).

But we can create more and superior job opportunities for all people on lower incomes by liberalising capital investment (see: http://timworstall.com/2008/08/20/so-you-want-to-raise-wages-do-you/), and we can help their current position by lowering taxes, and deregulating the housing market so that property prices become permanently lower. We could also reform our system of energy prices (stop artificially raising them), and we could abolish or otherwise reform the Common Agricultural Policy so that food prices are significantly cheaper. That would do more to raise the real spending power of people on lower incomes than introducing a nominal increase in wages that will rapidly be eaten up by inflation.

As for sexual harrassment, that will be solved to some extent by extending work opportunities, but also, in serious cases, needs to be addressed through the criminal law and civil law. Individuals are responsible for sexual harrassment, not tube users as a whole.

I agree completely John, are any of the tube driver walkouts because of solidarity with the cleaning staff? If so then that is definitely one factor that can exacerbate the scenario you talk of.

“are any of the tube driver walkouts because of solidarity with the cleaning staff”

No – or not ostensibly (unsurprising, as it’d be illegal), nor even that I’ve heard rumoured.

Mind you if we take this attitude we might end up driving all working class people’s wage down while rich get richer.

Great post. Welcome, John.

I think it’s a reasonable position to warn unions when they’re overplaying their hand. The world is littered with examples of collapsed industries because Unions shot themselves in the foot.

Also, John does outline the importance and results of responsible union leadership, in reference to manufacturing success in Germany – the world’s biggest exporter (until next year at least).

Laurie makes some good points, but if sexual harassment is real and ongoing, then there already exists channels to address this. It’s about the money, it always is.

“the Tube should be nationalised”

No, that would be illegal, unfair, unaffordable, inefficient and ineffective.

It should be broken up so that no single company monopolises underground transport in the capital or is able to be held hostage by the threats and demands of vested interests.

Not only the tube should be nationalised but the rest of the public transport system in this country should be too.

The massive increase in both ticket prices and the government subsidies paid to private train companies since the privatisation is ridiculous. All that for no visible improvement in services can’t be justified.

Public transport needs central planning.

Ok, why does public transport need to be centrally planned? How would you pay for it? How would the income cover the costs? Where would continued levels of investment come from? How can you legislate for improvements to the service?

Remember, nationalisation of the railways culminated in Beecham. My local line was still running carriages built in 1924 into 1995.

The key question, thomas, is just how much money we’re already pumping in to rail (for example) and how much more effort and money it would need for it to be run nationally at a lower cost to the customer.

“Remember, nationalisation of the railways culminated in Beecham”

I think the problems of the 1960s railways were more than a slight head cold. I think you mean ‘Beeching’, and John Band will be along in a minute to tell you why he was one of the key people who saved Britain’s railways.

“Ok, why does public transport need to be centrally planned?”

Because in order to provide true competition, and thus to be effective in a fully decentralised environment, you have to have largely separate infrastructure. Since in most of the UK the barriers to entry for this are stratospherically high (try pricing a new main line from Brighton to London, for instance) the likelihood of true competition is diminished. If you don’t have separate infrastructure you end up with two operators fighting over the same line, usually one having an in-built advantage. You can’t run two 10am trains from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh, for instance.

Note that this doesn’t apply so much to things like intercity coach travel, which will probably work perfectly well left purely to private enterprise (barring the subsidy inherent in the motorway system, of course). Likewise there is probably a good case to say international high speed rail, with its dedicated infrastructure and a (at least theoretical) high degree of interoperability, can handle multiple operators. It is, after all, competing with airlines, some of which are actively involved (British Airways part-owns Eurostar, for instance and Air France/KLM are apparently keen on replacing some of their aircraft with their own trains to save on fuel costs). See high speed rail as a kind of motorway system where private operators can run trains they think will make money and you’ll see the analogy with coaches. Obviously this suggest that the state should provide the infrastructure…

In cities you get all the problems of intercity rail travel (crippling barriers to entry) plus the urgent need to provide alternatives to car use to avoid losing a lot of money through congestion. This pretty much implies a centralised system with global ticket validity, subsidised fares, transport investment closely linked to planning etc. Recent experience in London rather proves this.

Well said Tom. I think you have highlighted the problem of a natural monopoly very well.

Thomas,

“How would you pay for it?”

How is it being paid for now? Ticket fairs and government subsidies. I don’t see why this should be any different after nationalisation.

“How would the income cover the costs?”

Again why do you think this would be massively different to now? Apart from cutting out the share holders costs.

” Where would continued levels of investment come from?”

By not paying those shareholders, just to give an example.

“How can you legislate for improvements to the service?”

I don’t know if you need to legislate for this. The democratic leverage should be far more effective than the current non-existent competition.

The key question, thomas, is just how much money we’re already pumping in to rail

Indeed. Much as it’d be jolly if trains were cheaper, at the moment rail subsidy represents a net transfer payment from the populationin general to relatively wealthy commuters in the southeast, which is tough to justify from a liberal POV.

John Band will be along in a minute to tell you why [Beeching] was one of the key people who saved Britain’s railways.

*raises hand*

In the 1950s British Railways wasted a billion quid *in 1950s money* on building steam trains and small-load freight marshalling yards, both of which were obsolete and scrapped within 10 years. Particularly given that the country was ruinously poor at the time anyway, and that rail passenger numbers were plummeting as lorry and car use took off, this made the government angry.

Beeching’s report aimed to make the economics of the railway less utterly terrifying by closing lossmaking lines from nowhere to nowhere via nowhere, on the basis that it’d be better for all concerned if the four people making the journey from nowhere to nowhere went by car (which is still true, even from an environmental perpective). It also removed some surplus capacity which would now be useful, but given that the context was 10 years into a 30-year decline in rail usage, I don’t think that’s unforgivable.

(David Serpell, who died a couple of weeks ago, was the guy who really saved the railway – his report in the early 1980s explained to the then government exactly what kind of railway network could pay for itself – basically the most profitable London commuter lines plus high-speed lines to Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol, Leeds and Sheffield – and then set out the different subsidy profiles that would be required to provide a railway beyond those basics).

You can’t run two 10am trains from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh, for instance.

Pedantishly, you can (there are two trains that leave Birmingham New Street for Edinburgh at the same time, one Virgin and one Cross Country). But your point holds, and you’re absolutely right about TfL being the best model for cities and branded franchising being the best model for inter-city. Scotland and Liverpool are also interesting in terms of the private/public settlement going on there.

I get the feeling that the writer of this post is annoyed that the tube workers have the courage to stand up to their employer and make sure that he knows his place, whereas the likes of John Band lack the balls for that kind of thing.

Surely if the tube is on strike that is a perfect opportunity for you to take a day off bastard work? It is not your problem because the place where you work is not your problem: bastard work involves the bosses’ place, bosses’ profits and bosses’ problems. We just go to pick up our wages. If your gaffer wants you in, then he can damn well pay for your taxi. Otherwise stay tucked up in bed.

And stop moaning about other workers who do have the guts that you lack.

No, that would be illegal, unfair, unaffordable, inefficient and ineffective.

Why,why, why, why and why?

Of course a large chunk of the tube network has already had to be brought back under public control because the private sector made such a huge f*ck up of it.

Much as it’d be jolly if trains were cheaper, at the moment rail subsidy represents a net transfer payment from the populationin general to relatively wealthy commuters in the southeast, which is tough to justify from a liberal POV.

Not really, they also pay a bigger proportion of the tax. Furthermore, public transport also provides a net benefit to poorer people who may not want to travel by car. Furthermore, it eases congestion and has a net benefit on the environment.

Its very justifiable.

“Much as it’d be jolly if trains were cheaper, at the moment rail subsidy represents a net transfer payment from the populationin general to relatively wealthy commuters in the southeast, which is tough to justify from a liberal POV.”

One of the problems with train travel at the minute outside of the cities is that it’s too damn expensive. The other is that in rural area’s the lines don’t cater for working in a different town to that which you live. If investment went in for the latter, and if prices were cheaper instead of the former, you’d see some of that “payment transfer” diminishing as rail travel becomes more appealing.

Lee, John and Aaron –

Sorry not to get back to this post – have been out all day. Right, I can fill you in a little on the strike as I’ve been vaguely involved with writing press releases for it.

Some tube drivers are striking in solidarity with the cleaners, but mostly the lines have to be shut down anyway. It’s policy that the tubes don’t run if adequate cleaning hasn’t been done – it’s dangerous, the drivers don’t like it and it’s generally unpleasant for everyone. The cleaners, in fact, could shut down the tubes for a few days just on their own if they wanted.

RMT are quick to strike because they know that, in their particular case, it’s damn effective – but there was negotiation for precise pay and conditions demands beforehand. As i said before, those demands include a salary in line with the London living wage, an end to staff harrassment and third-party sackings by corporate managers, sick pay (which they don’t get), more than 12 days leave per year, and free travel to get around the underground as they clean (currently the price of travelling from station to station as they work comes out of their wages).

So not *just* the money.

Any more you want to know just shout.

This post leads me to believe that the definition of “liberal” in “liberal conspiracy” clearly extends to that nineteenth-century liberalism which underpinned the Treasury orthodoxy in the 1930s and Thatcher in the 1980s!

The idle comparison of one capitalist economy with another in order to illustrate an over simplified argument was the stock in trade of those who sought to justify attacks on the trade unions over the past generation. To imagine that the differential experience of the German (previously West German) and British economies was primarily determined by labour movement strategy is pretty poor economic history.

As for the present, the RMT are acting as workers in a capitalist economy should – and as other social actors in a capitalist economy do, to get the best deal they can. The labour market does not work for workers unless we combine to increase our market power. The purchasers of the labour power of RMT members – if not monopsonists – certainly have a great deal of market power which they use to hold down the wages of workers who provide a vital service.

A “social contract” type strategy for the labour movement, though it has little to recommend it from the history of this country, depends in any case upon the availability of social partners who want to deal. Neither the RMT nor any other section of the working class currently face employers who want a genuine partnership, in which wage claims might be moderated as part of a programme of productive investment to raise living standards.

The strategic options for the trade unions depend upon the approach of employers and Government. In our current circumstances the RMT is proving an effective trade union and is growing in consequence. In a capitalist economy, the market will always try to find a way round bastions of working class power and the challenge for the future of trade unions is therefore always to take unionisation out from the strong areas to the weak.

The RMT have as good a record on this as any union. Can I suggest that the liberalism of this conspiracy ought to extend to inviting an article from an RMT activist about the recent successes for Tube Lines workers and for the cleaners?

As for Bob Crow – it is not about him, but for what its worth he is one of the most popular trade union leaders among us volunteer lay activists who give our lives to keeping the movement going.

12 / 14 – the strike by the cleaners who are members of RMT resulted in an agreement to raise their wages and pay the living wage from next September. Not sure they would agree that unionisation for unskilled workers is ‘completely pointless’!

Agree with Jon.
Amongst the majority of the millions of trade unionists Bob Crow is an inspiration, compared to the weak new labour stooges they have as General Secretary.

I’ve just published on my blog the success of the RMT Cleaners dispute (www.unionfutures.blogspot.com) where under Bob Crows leadership low paid (mainly black women) migrant workers will finally get a london living wage.

The RMT are the fastest growing union because of their leaderships strength to stand up for the workers – when most other unions growth is at a standstill at best.

There have been a number of strikes on the underground recently and I can understand how some commuters get frustrated by that – but are we to stop sticking up for vulnerable workers rights because some city types get frustrated? Don’t think so!

Bob Crow is there to stick up for his workers – the new labour hangers on in the TU movement despise him because he has the balls to stand up to them – the employers despise him because he has the support of the workforce and he scares the shit out of them.

Its an easy decision to make are we for someone who sticks up for the workers or against them – Anyone who claims to be a left or liberal can surely see whose side they should be on.

“The RMT are the fastest growing union because of their leaderships strength to stand up for the workers – when most other unions growth is at a standstill at best.”

Once again, you’re looking at the short term. What use is having a strong leadership when there is no-one to lead after the management do everything they can to eradicate their problem of a distemperate service and (as they will see it) being held to ransom. And the more this happens the less support the workers will get, I’ve not problem with the RMT getting their workers up to what should be minimum standards in working conditions and pay, but certainly with tube drivers we’re well beyond that point.

When the high streets are claiming millions of pounds in losses every time a strike hits and worries of losing long term business over unreliability of service you know that there will be pressures from different sectors on tube management to sort this problem from happening…and you know the solution won’t be a 10% pay rise and 10 more day’s holiday a year.

The flaw in the last comment is that (Lee) you only seem to see the strategy and tactics of the trade union, which you criticise without a word about the strategy and tactics of the Government and employers which create the disputes the union prosecutes.

I invite you to think through the alternative approach implied by your criticisms. The RMT should be less enthusiastic to increase their members’ pay? They should advocate restraint to the tube drivers in precisely the same way Government Ministers do not to recipients of city bonuses?

If they could command the majority support of their members for this self-denying approach, so that the employers saved some money, what would the employers do with the money? Do you think that this would lengthen the life of their industry? Should this be of concern to the workers in the industry?

If trade union strategy and politics were the decisive determinant of sectoral change in the economy you might have a point, but there is no evidence to support the underlying assumptions of your argument. The moderate leadership of the ISTC was no better at defending the steel industry than the militant leadership of the NUM were at defending the coal industry.

Apols – Beeching/Beecham – before my time, funny though.

I’m sorry, but I don’t see that any of the questions relating to nationalisation have been answered.

Rail isn’t a ‘natural monopoly’ because it competes with other methods of transport and anyway there is scope for choice over routes, timetables and formats. Local trains, inter-city trains and high-speed trains haven’t entered into competition against each other here doesn’t disprove the fact that they can, if we look to other countries for example. Cross-ownership is also anti-competitive.

Soon @25
How would the transfer of ownership be paid for? It isn’t being paid for now because it isn’t happening at the moment.

How would it pay for itself? If fares and subsidies are to continue at the same rate how does the government secure preferential borrowing rates on the market value of company equity to continue current levels of investment without negatively influencing inflationary levels or currency exchange rates? With no increase in capacity there is no chance of reducing fares without increasing taxation or introducing artificial measures to control competition from other transport formats.

I think you need to learn a bit about capital finance to understand why shareholding is necessary to provide adequate guarantees by voluntarily underwriting project costs and rather than by the coercive central government/taxation method. Part of this government’s economic malaise is to do with the way it has overextended itself in accruing risk and burdening the taxpayer at the expense of the general well-being.

I agree that we have a system of non-competition currently, so I find it odd that you wish to reduce it further.

Aaron@28
I think it’s not the private sector which has made a mess, but that they have done the best they could under the given situation. It was the government which messed up by ensuring companies couldn’t do their jobs properly enough through failed regulation and the ongoing failure of the regulators.

Sunny@29
Spoken like a true Londoner! Londoners contribute a larger proportion of the national income by paying proportionately less of their personal income in taxation.

Public transport can only be argued to provide a net benefit to those with less means because of the gross distortions in the market regulations and their resulting conditions of operation which support that conclusion.

If parking in London were more available this cost imbalance would be reduced – in fact where the costs differentials are marginal the fact that the roads are clogged show that people prefer to take advantage of the flexibility of choices available to them and are willing to accept congestion by creating it in the first place.

Furthermore public transport only eases congestion or provides any economic or environmental benefit where it is used efficiently. Multiple empty busses do more harm than good, while the land space taken by shelters, stops and rail or other infrastructure reduces the total environment available while damaging the natural landscape (some would say that London is already so blighted that any change is an improvement).

Public transport is potentially justifiable, but only in relation to the alternatives and by contrast with unregulated spawl.

Getting back to the issue of strikes. It is the centralised nature of the current underground organisational structure which makes it so vulnerable to militancy, while this also creates disempowerment for the diffent types of workers thereby leading to divergent quality of conditions.

The RMT and Bob Crow is playing off sympathy for those at the bottom of the scale (cleaners etc) in order to advance the interests of those at the top (drivers, engineers, etc), because the powers that be within the union know that any change in the fundamental structure would harm their ability to make further profits from militant action at the expense of those below them – If the drivers cared about the cleaners they would offer to split any monetary considerations with them and if the RMT cared about the general conditions of the tube they’d be encouraging greater equality between the different types of worker.

Laurie, I’m sorry to say, is caught in the divide between attempting to profit from inequality by building political capital off the backs of those who suffer and actually seeking more equality.

Jon Rogers, that is hilarious – you defend your critique of classical liberalism and comparative methodology by making a comparison between underground workers and the government attitude to city bonuses!!

The RMT is growing because it opposes effective partnership and is growing it’s power by effectively dividing the workers among themselves.

“are we to stop sticking up for vulnerable workers rights because some city types get frustrated?”

I’m surprised, but pleased, that the cleaners have succeeded in their action. I’m sceptical that it’s that directly connected to the strike campaign, though – the disruption caused by the cleaner strikes earlier this year was negligible, and there’s a general move among London public sector organisations to force contractors to pay the living wage.

All well and good, but what we *should* have is a regional variation in the minimum wage, with London employers *forced* to pay £7.50 per hour (rather than cleaners who happen to clean high-profile semi-public sector bits getting a decent deal, while dishwashers in restaurants and cleaners in factories continue to get £2 less for working in worse conditions).

In terms of the people whose strikes make a serious difference – the drivers and signallers – they earn more than most of the workers they’re transporting, and 4.9% isn’t a bad pay rise to be taking home this year. Of course they have the right to band together to protect their conditions, and the withdrawal of their skilled labour is a serious threat. My point is purely that their current tactics might not be the best strategic move to defend their position…

“The moderate leadership of the ISTC was no better at defending the steel industry than the militant leadership of the NUM were at defending the coal industry.”

Err… we still make 14 million tonnes of steel a year, which is about the same as in 1978. How much coal do we make?

No doubt our writer (and some of the commenters) would berate Spartacus for failing to recognise management’s right to management.

Oh, and Bob Crow doesn’t tell any of us to go on strike. Workers – RMT members – vote for strikes, and we often get cross with our national leadership for not calling strikes soon or often enough, or calling them off too soon.

Thomas,

I think you need to stop looking at things from a purely economical point of view. It’s very liberating.

I want to reduce the competition in this case further because I don’t see it as the ends. I see it as means that should be applied when it proves useful. In case of public rail transport it has proved massively counter productive. It has made strategic decision making harder, it has made for a dismembered system that nobody knows who is responsible for what, it has made for massive increases of ticket fairs and government subsidies with no apparent improve in punctuality and services.

It fascinating how the former communist states all have very effective public transport networks. Don’t you think that tells us something?

“It fascinating how the former communist states all have very effective public transport networks. Don’t you think that tells us something?”

Yes, it tells that if you enslave an entire population and shoot a few disobedient slaves now and then, you can indeed achieve at least a proportion of centrally planned objectives (not all, Slovakia’s railways are rubbish!). Perhaps we could use the pyramid building strategies of the Egyptian pharaohs to prepare for the 2012 Olympics – wouldn’t have so many cost overruns then and those stadium WOULD be up on time!

Soon,

It is selective in the extreme to say that authoritarian states have good public transport, as if that justifies voting for Mussolini – only he could make the trains run on time, dontcha know!

Anyhoo, I’m not sure I know which former communist states you’re refering to, or if any of them were actually what they claimed.

You seem to argue against your earlier case for nationalisation in saying you are angered that costs have increased while service has dropped. So which is it?

I agree competition is the means by which better service can be wrought under our current democratic political system, and I disagree that inadequate and oversufficient regulation has enabled this country to enjoy the benefits of it: strategic decision making has been disincentivised precisely because regulators have been biased against competition.

So really it is the lack of competition which has proved counter-productive in your sense, while I claim that the minimal level of competition has produced only minimal improvements.

Our disagreement over the prescription for the problem arises from our disagreement over the diagnosis, not any political disagreement.

Jon:
The RMT have as good a record on this as any union. Can I suggest that the liberalism of this conspiracy ought to extend to inviting an article from an RMT activist about the recent successes for Tube Lines workers and for the cleaners?

I hope to. If you can point me in the right direction I’d like that. Rest assured I’m pro-union. I just thought the article would provoke a good discussion that shouldn’t be shied away from.

One word for Soon: Switzerland.

Sunny,
Janine who commented on this post earlier is an RMT activist.

I’ll put you in contact.

Cheers Sunny – and good idea about Janine mj.

To other commentators; thomas (37) thankyou for describing a comment on a blog post as a critique of classical liberalism 😉 but the RMT are uniting not dividing the workers (as you would expect from an industrial union – indeed much of the misplaced criticism of the RMT on this thread seems to assume that the RMT is a craft union, which is, to put it kindly, misinformed).

John B(38) 4.9% is a crap pay rise when the RPI is 5%. Just because we are all getting crap pay rises doesn’t change the fact that our standard of living is falling (yet there is still growth in labour productivity across the economy so someone somewhere is reaping the benefit…) and as for the steel industry, how many workers are there producing that steel? The rise and fall of industries and sectors depends on far more than trade union strategies, which have a fairly minor influence.

The point that the original post makes about the limits to the benefits to be obtained by sectional militancy is sound, but the conclusion that sectional militancy should be abandoned for moderation is flawed. From a trade union perspective the answer is surely that we should build unity and solidarity amongst workers – and that we need a political voice for organised labour (indeed to make a balanced judgement of Bob Crow’s leadership of the RMT it would also be appropriate to take into account the RMT’s support for the Shop Stewards Network).

But that is probably a whole series of other posts…

I’m also very keen, non-sarkily, to see Janine’s piece.

“much of the misplaced criticism of the RMT on this thread seems to assume that the RMT is a craft union”

Again, don’t get me wrong – anything which ensures that unskilled London workers are paid the living wage is brilliant.

Nonetheless, the reason the RMT is perceived as a craft union is that it mostly is – its core function is to preserve the role of train guards and drivers as people who earn well above the median wage for doing a skilled working class job. ASLEF is more of a craft union, I admit, but if you don’t think RMT’s core representation and leadership is drawn from the skilled grades rather than the poor, then I’ve got a bridge for sale.

“John B(38) 4.9% is a crap pay rise when the RPI is 5%.”

Aye, and real GDP growth is 0%. Yes, that sucks; I don’t quite understand why driving a train or operating a signalbox is supposed to exempt you from the general fucked-ness of everything.

@Nick

I was not advocating a communist regime at all. Just aspects of it, namely central planning and management for the transport infrastructure.

@ Neil

I give more than one word; Germany, France, Italy, Russia….

@thomas

Again, Russia, Ukraine, etc…they all have very effective and very planned rail road systems. Take Moscow’s metro as an example. I really don’t understand this almost blind disagreement with central planning, it’s as stupid as blind disagreement with competition.

German rail is a similar private/public mish-mash to the UK. France has lovely high-speed trains and Paris has a good suburban network, but the rest of SNCF is much worse than UK rail (a couple of trains a day; even more bus-replacement than the UK even worse publicised; and even more delays than us). Not sure about how Italian and Russian railways work, though.

Russian railways work around a fixed timetable and can’t cope with delays, but given many of the distances covered there is plenty of ability to vary speeds to compensate.

The Moscow underground is a memorial to all the people who died building it, and again it is on such a scale that it could be designed to prevent double-tracking of lines which is the main cause of stacking, and means Moscow underground doesn’t have or need to operate according to a timetable, nor does it need any central planning team to expand the service. The design strengths of the Moscow underground mean it is far cheaper and more flexible to run and can easily avoid pricing model changes well into the next century (the unlimited nature of ticket pricing is particularly liberal). It can’t be described as evidence in favour of central control, rather the opposite.

The Ukraine follows the soviet model while Italian railways benefit from the linear geography of the country, but is otherwise mainly similar to the German system.

The peculiarity of continental railways is the way tolerance for delays is included into timetables by allowing for connections, and although waiting at stations or signals for alloted slots is often confusing to the British experience of inflexibility this is a result of the isolated development of our networks – the multilateral integration of so many nations rail connections is a perfect example of how centralisation doesn’t work.

The collapse of British rail freight gave the passenger network breathing space for a couple of decades and obscured many of the system flaws, but since the channel tunnel opened freight has become far more relevant again.

The inflexibility of central planning means it is unable to predict changes and therefore failure is designed into the system.

50. Green Socialist

This post could have easily been places on a Tory Blog, typical of someone who has (I assume) never actually spoken to RMT members.
A lot of recent disputes have been about issues such as the filthy working conditions staff face with as well as attempts by London Underground to cut corners on safety etc.
If you look abroad for the best examples of public transport, they are never run under private finance (to my knowledge) the market has its place, but not in public transport!

“This post could have easily been places on a Tory Blog, typical of someone who has (I assume) never actually spoken to RMT members.”

Wrong on the RMT assertion. And I doubt a Tory blog would a) care overmuch about the cleaners or b) approve of the concept of a craft union in the first place.

“A lot of recent disputes have been about issues such as the filthy working conditions staff face with as well as attempts by London Underground to cut corners on safety etc.”

Hmm. If by “cut corners on safety” they mean “get rid of insane gold-plating”, then I’m all in favour. In general, I’m a believer that public transport in this country is too safe (ie it’d be better in benefit/cost analysis terms if we spent less on safety and more on capacity – the lives saved by the modal shift from much-more-dangerous cars would far outweigh the lives lost by a higher-but-still-low rate of train and bus accidents).

“If you look abroad for the best examples of public transport, they are never run under private finance (to my knowledge) ”

Hmm:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MTR_Corporation_Limited
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMRT_Corporation

“As a result of this antagonistic relationship, companies sought to replace their workforce with machines, foreigners employed abroad, and foreigners employed here”

I fail to see how this is a *result* of an antagonistic relationship. If a company is driven by the logic of capitalism it will seek to mechanise, either to de-skill or to de-man the labour process and increase the rate of exploitation. The same goes for employing cheaper workers, here or abroad. A strong union is the only defence against this logic, unless we are to rely on the benevolent, enlightened charity of the employers*, even if unions as they exist are not strong enough to win the fight in the long term.

The idea that these changes were the result of an antagonstic relationship appears to be of the kind that sees class war only when the working classes are sounding the charge, and not in the everday, attritional gains of the bosses.

*Which is effectively what you recommend that the low paid, in routinised, low skilled or de-skilled jobs must rely on.

If a company is driven by the logic of capitalism it will seek to mechanise, either to de-skill or to de-man the labour process and increase the rate of exploitation.

No, it’ll seek to produce the goods and services that can earn it the largest profit in the cheapest way possible. That doesn’t have to involve mechanisation and de-skilling; it can often be more cost-effective to have a skilled and well-paid workforce. But that relies on a positive relationship between the company and its employees, which isn’t going to happen if the union’s led by a figure like Bob Crow.

“that relies on a positive relationship between the company and its employees, which isn’t going to happen if the union’s led by a figure like Bob Crow”

But Bob Crow is the natural and necessary response to:

“it’ll seek to produce the goods and services that can earn it the largest profit in the cheapest way possible”

As that immediately places the bosses in conflict with the workers. And it is all very well suggesting that some companies do emply ‘high road’ management practices, but the fact is they are not the norm. They are most suitable to highly skilled jobs that are resistant to routinisation or externalisation, where the labour market is a sellers’ market. But what for the rest? The majority are not in this position.

And anyhow, the ‘high road’ practices are influenced by the model of Japan in the early 1980s, a corporate state where, at the time, the company men got jobs for life, sports teams, extensive welfare, etc., i.e. Fordist welfarism within a mini-state corporation. That wasn’t the case in Britain, and no amount of subservience would have made it so.

“They are most suitable to highly skilled jobs that are resistant to routinisation or externalisation”

…which is a good description of (the driver/signaller side of) the rail industry. Which is why the schemes to replace labour with capital in LU are so complex, expensive and long-term, and wouldn’t be happening at all if the union relations weren’t so toxic.


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