A series of Tube strikes in February and April 2014 brought huge disruption to Londoners going about their business in the nation’s capital. Other strikes planned in May were diverted at the last minute.
Millions of London commuters might have got used to closed Tube stations, overcrowded buses and nightmarish congestion on the roads. Politicians and businesses on the other hand have reached the limits of their patience due to the economic cost of Tube strikes.
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and senior Conservative politicians proposed a variety of legislative changes to reduce the future likelihood of Tube strikes.
Why Do Tube Strikes Keep Happening?
Strikes occurred in February and April over proposed ticket office closures which are planned within the modernisation of the Tube network.
In 2013 Transport for London (TfL) and London Underground set out plans to modernise the Tube network and improve customer services with billions of pounds of investment. The proposals included better use of technology such as contactless bank card payment systems, new ticket machines and Wi-Fi coverage in certain stations.
Ticket office closures were made part of the plans for two reasons. The first was to reduce costs for passengers with expected savings estimated at £50m per year. The second was to make way for automated stations that could operate 24 hours at the weekends. London Underground hopes to offer the 24 hour weekend service on a number of key lines such as the Piccadilly, Victoria, Central, Jubilee and parts of the Northern Line.
The modernisation is expected to result in around 950 job losses, mostly through voluntary redundancy. The RMT and TSSA unions balloted the strikes in response to the proposed ticket office closures and associated job cuts.
How Might Strike Laws Change?
Following the strikes London Mayor Boris Johnson suggested that union ballots should require over 50 per cent of the whole membership to vote in favour, i.e. an absolute majority, before a strike could be held. The London Mayor has long been an advocate of minimum vote threshold for strike action in essential public services. Currently the requirement is that a simple majority of those voting must vote in favour.
Senior Conservative politicians were believed to be in favour of a different approach which would class London Underground as an essential service. The Conservative manifesto may see a pledge to put in place minimum service agreements for such essential services, limiting the number of possible strike days each year.
These proposals may be political posturing but further strikes can only increase the likelihood of new legislation.
Job losses are an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable consequence of cuts to budgets and the automation that comes with modernisation. Strike laws must find a balance between enabling workers to assert their rights and preventing excessive disruption to wider society.
On a related note, employers must have policies in place for staff facing serious travel disruption due to events such as strikes. These might include home working arrangements, short notice holiday requests and how unscheduled absence or lateness is dealt with.