Striking Times

Back in 2009, oh so many moons ago, I remember being dragged to a social event for someone’s birthday that I didn’t really like. I’d just been on the G20 protest that day and wasn’t really in the mood to hang out and make polite conversation but I went anyway. I got caught up talking to someone who was being fairly insulting about that days protests saying that everyone involved was a ‘crusty’ who clearly had ‘nothing better to do’. She was unable to understand what they were making a stand about. I told her I had been on that demonstration and explained that I was there in protest of the banking system that had caused the economic crash and it was a movement towards fairer economic policies to stop regular people being made redundant and punished for a mistake that wasn’t ours. She adamantly stated that it was all nonsense and after arguing enough I gave up, and asked boring questions instead, such as what she did for a job. She had, as it turned out, just been made redundant due to cut backs at work thanks to the recession.

I’ve never understood how she was able to disassociate what was happening to her with the economic climate at the time, aside from jumping to the easy conclusion that she was an idiot. But it’s not just that. Lots of people have exactly the same ability. This week, in London, there is a tube strike. It is amongst all the tube strikes that have happened over the last few years, one of the far more valid ones. Boris Johnson vowed in 2010 that he wouldn’t close London Underground ticket offices. Ken Livingstone had previously said 40 of them would close and to oppose him, Boris had promised that wouldn’t happen. Now, in 2014, he is planning to close all of them. Tons of jobs will be lost, lost of tourists will be even more confused about our transport system, safety and security will be lowered and generally all in all, it seems like another ridiculous idea that will only end in an inferior service for everyone who uses it. The Clown Mayor of London has promised that staff will be away from behind the booth and instead on hand to help, but with staff cuts it can’t be that many of them. And in busy travel times it certainly won’t be enough. This follows Boris closing many busy firestations ensuring that response time to fires will stay the same, despite that being an actual impossibility with less staff and further distances to travel. He is, single handedly, making the capital a less safe and convenient place to be.

So rightly so, the tube workers are on strike. They would like to keep their jobs, and they can also foresee how messy things will get without them. Yet my Twitter timeline is full of people calling them lazy, complaining about how inconsiderate it is and generally being hugely upset that it is taking them slightly longer to get to work or, woe is me, they have to work from home for a day. Now, I am in a very lucky position where I rarely have to commute. I work from home and drive to gigs so ultimately, this hasn’t really affected me, and I understand that. I’ve checked that privilege. What I don’t understand is animosity towards people wanting to not be made redundant? When did standing up for yourself and your work become something to be ashamed of? Sure, there have been a lot of tube strikes over the years, not always for brilliant reasons and so perhaps people feel it’s a ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario. But if other workplaces and workers stood up against conditions they weren’t happy with, would we ever feel disgruntled by TFL’s union decisions?

I was discussing with another comedian last night, as is an ever increasing conversation topic amongst us comic types, about the need for comedy union. It’s a very hard industry to create one for, though the comic in question had some brilliant ideas. If we had someone to regulate promoters and wages, it would limit how many times shows have been cancelled and there is no cancellation fee on offer. Having wages you planned to get suddenly disappear is never easy. We don’t get sick pay or holiday pay, and yes, it is our choice to do this line of work, but it would be made easier with certain guidance in place. Yet the idea of a union, someone to protect workers rights, has become more and more demonised. Labour are now changing their rules so unions have less say in the choice of Labour leader, after having been shamed into doing so by the Falkirk incident. I’d still choose someone who is backed by workers unions over someone who is sponsored by banks any day and can’t understand why you wouldn’t. And now the Conservatives are discussing changing strike laws so TFL and others can’t stand against losing their jobs.

If you think that’s the correct way to go, then you are for workers having no ability to stand-up for their rights at all. Along with tenant’s rights being reduced, and legal aid too, it’s becoming very clear that the general populace is heading towards a very undemocratic society. That is a very dangerous place to be, and one that I’m sure seems of no consequence to many, until they themselves have their job threatened. When that happens, I hope they realise what a mistake they made.


I’m currently on my first ever UK tour! All dates and ticket links are up at my website: Please spread the word and come along as if you’re not there it’ll be rubbish. It’ll just be me in a room & if I can’t get 3G I’ll be really bored. So far the shows have been a lot of fun. The very funny Chris Coltrane is supporting me on some dates and the brilliant Keith Farnan is doing a double header with me on others.


3 thoughts on “Striking Times

  1. Firstly, I have to say that I don’t *want* people to lose their jobs. I don’t *want* people to earn less money. I’m not a bastard.

    I do want the tube to be safe, convenient, reliable, frequent, and have great customer service.

    Now, here are the buts.

    First and foremost, having great customer service (or making things safe and reliable) does not mean that we have to hold on to the old ways of doing things at all costs. Lets take the Oyster. Now I’m not actually a huge fan of pre-payment, the arbitrary tappy-charges, not knowing how much is on the card, likelihood of it failing, etc. But even I have to admit that there are certain advantages to not having to queue for a ticket on every journey, and not wasting resources issuing paper tickets every time. So – and even though it has some negative points – it is essentially a good thing. An improvement over what we used to have.

    Now. Ticket offices. I mean actual, physical spaces with glass windows for issuing tickets (not staff in station generally). At one time, there was no other reasonable way of issuing tickets, of being able to accept payment. But do we still really need them? I mean, I always use a ticket machine for loading my Oyster.

    Ok, not everybody can use a ticket machine. But there are, still will be (in fact, there will be more) staff at the station. Staff that can assist people using the ticket machines (you know, like there are still operators hanging around the self-checkouts in supermarkets to sort out problems). So it’s not entirely clear that we need an actual office to help those that need assistance.

    Now, we still have problems with Oysters. They charge the wrong amount, which means a trip to the ticket window. But TFL are promising new ticket machines, that will allow us to resolve this ourselves. And of course, there are still staff at the station to help people that can’t work the machines.

    What about broken Oysters? Well, we’ve all got smartphones now, where we can check information. And all the tube stations are getting WiFi. So it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities for staff on the station floor to use a mobile device to check information, and use the ticket machines to fix your problems – all without the need of a dedicated ticket window. Which is exactly what TFL are promising.

    And if we have all the staff out on the station floor, rather than some stuck behind a ticket window, then that means there is more flexibility for them to provide whatever assistance is required at the time.

    If it’s all done right, that sounds an awful lot like *better* customer service and *better* for safety, from having closed the ticket windows, and using the staff more effectively, and with better technology.

    Of course, the devil is in the detail. Which TFL has not published. Which is a bit of a problem, when delivering good customer service should primarily be an issue of what is in the *public* interest, not what is in the interest of the unions.

    TFL has promised not to make any compulsory redundancies. Nobody will be forced to lose their jobs. Now, we don’t know much about that – whether there are any pay cuts. And remember, I said I don’t *want* people to lose jobs or money.

    But here’s the other thing – the tube has to be cost-effective. The more we pay for staffing (and other things), the more the overall cost raises, which has to be covered either from the public purse (taxes) or from ticket prices. Of course, we’ve been in recession, and most customers of the tube have had their pay cut in real terms – cost of living going up, including public transport tickets.

    So, if we look at the recent recession, you’ll see in private enterprise – particularly in manufacturing – instances where workers / trade unions have sat down with employers, looked at the revenue, and agreed to pay cuts (or worse) in order to keep the business alive and people in employment.

    Public services / transport just don’t have the same pressure. You can’t sit down with the RMT and show that the number of people needing to use the tube is falling, or that they are losing revenue and need to economize to save jobs. Whatever the unions want in terms of staffing and wages, well, ultimately the costs can be absorbed – or rather, passed on to the general public. Regardless of how much that might hurt the people that need to use the services, regardless of how much cost of living increases, regardless of how that forces wages up, regardless of how many businesses might fail and how many non-tube staff might lose their jobs, because of the damage expensive public transport does to the economy.

    No, I can’t quantify that. No I can’t way up tube jobs vs non-tube jobs. But it’s never as simple as being able to say it’s just an issue for one set of workers. The economy is a lot more complex.

    I said I don’t *want* people to lose their jobs. Or lose their pay. And TFL have at least partly promised that. But it remains that providing appropriate customer service is a matter of *public* interest. This should not be a battle about what the unions want, but a public consultation over what is the right service to provide.

    The appropriate action here was to organise a petition. One to get a public consultation. The union could have helped do that. If a public consultation still isn’t forthcoming (but desired), then might be an appropriate time to strike.

    I want a safe tube and good customer service. Without a public consultation, it is actually possible that the unions are preventing a tube that better delivers better on both fronts.

    • Some very good points Graham, and ones I definitely hadn’t quite thought about. Thanks for that. I also think that while there are some definite advantages to updating the way things are done – cost effectiveness and yes, god knows I hate queuing as much as the next person – there are also some disadvantages. I thought this that Sunny Hundal tweeted earlier was particularly good:

      But, like you say, there should have been more sit down talking before it resulted in a strike. I’m no fan of Bob Crow but Boris has now refused to even meet or have talks with him since he’s been in office, which is just childish as far as I’m concerned. As always, it’s a ton of people we can’t rely on in charge of things we need. Thanks world.

  2. In response to Graham’s comments, I wonder how many people prefer a machine to seeing a friendly face and receiving help from a human being? I wonder if he knows that London is considered the tourist capital and visitors need ticket offices. Why is Graham so arrogant to assume everyone uses or can afford a smartphone? Doesn’t he realise pensioners consider this to be a waste of money. As regards the tube being cost-effective, he should look at the cable car which is used from 7 am every day for 4 regular commuters. How much has this cost – is it £40m or £60m of public money? Why has public money been wasted on promoting the new bus and the survey by the Mayor in a time of recession? What makes Graham think there will not be a cut in London Underground jobs of up to 1,000 jobs? As the underground has to be cost-effective, I presume a number of senior management will resign. Finally, how is it that Graham does not condemn the Mayor for reneging on his promise to ensure there would be a manned office at every station?

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