Blogs > London transport strikes: TfL have parked the common good in a siding

04 February 2014 | by Elena Curti

London transport strikes: TfL have parked the common good in a siding

I have only fainted once in my life. It happened last May on a tube train just as it was pulling into Turnham Green station in west London. I was standing up when I passed out and a fellow passenger helped me onto the platform. Very quickly a member of the station’s staff took over and I was able to explain to him that I had suddenly felt very ill at work after eating a takeaway salad. I can remember how through a haze of nausea the staff member looked after me for close to an hour, arranged for a cleaner to come and clear up the mess and then put me on a train home, putting me in the first carriage and telling the driver to keep an eye on me.

As I was leaving he also told me that the London mayor, Boris Johnson, was getting rid of jobs like his and that soon there would be no station staff left.

One afternoon a few days later, I went back to the station with a card and a small gift. There were no station staff around but I found someone in an office who told me the man who had helped me had a job working at a number of stations and wasn’t on duty at Turnham Green that day.

What will happen after all the ticket offices at tube stations have closed if Transport for London (TfL) and Boris Johnson get their way? TfL says on its website that all stations will be staffed and controlled at all times with more staff visible to help customers.

The RMT and TSSA unions don’t believe it and are staging a 48-hour strike starting tonight and another 48-hour stoppage next week.

Their grounds for scepticism are well-founded because TfL is giving precious few details about its plans for staffing tube stations. It says it want to cut close to 1,000 ticket office jobs and to redeploy some 200 people to work on the planned 24-hour tube service beginning in 2015. With TfL involved in a heavy investment programme it is a fair bet that it is anxious to cut staffing costs as the unions claim. The only guarantee that stations will be staffed is to keep ticket offices open. In contradiction of TfL’s current plans, Boris Johnson pledged in his 2008 manifesto to stop proposed ticket office closures in outer London saying that “manned ticket offices provide a reassuring, visible presence”.

However, even now finding a member of staff at some suburban stations is a matter of luck as my experience showed. We need staff at our stations to make us feel safe, to assist with routine enquiries and of course to help us in emergencies. There is the potential for every tube passenger to need help at some point and so staffing stations serves the common good. As the Bishops of England and Wales said in their 2010 document, "Choosing the Common Good": "'Because we are interdependent, the common good is more like a multiplication sum, where if any one number is zero then the total is always zero. If anyone is left out and deprived of what is essential, then the common good has been betrayed" (Chapter 8). Hang the expense, we can’t afford not to have station staff.

The strikes are mighty inconvenient and I am dreading the long queue at the bus stop, the overcrowded buses and the likely long walk to work. But until TfL backs up its claims with details of precisely how many staff it plans to have on each station and the hours they will work I know whose side I’m on.

Elena Curti is The Tablet's deputy editor

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User Comments (3)

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 06/02/2014 20:32:04

Just trying to get a sense check: how much say does the Mayor of London have over how the tube should be run? He is after all democratically elected... (although it is rather disappointing that he reneged on a pledge not to close ticket offices that Ms Curti reported...)

Comment by: Paul Heiland
Posted: 06/02/2014 16:12:04

Unfortunately industrial action has a bad name, which results from an unjustified generalisation. In this case, it is the only instrument a workforce which cares about the standard of service it provides (supposedly in harmony with management) has available to it. That is in itself disgraceful - such initiatives should be submitted by management to a works-council (who would request a "reworking"), but these are politically undesirable, so the public has to be taken hostage. Intelligent industrial relations that is not.

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 06/02/2014 00:03:39

Rather than aiming for full employment in the traditional sense, I think we should recognise that this won't be possible anymore because of technology and global freedom of capital movement. We should stop spending millions on all sorts of conditional "back to work" schemes that only serve to make those without work feel bad. Local incentives to attract capital to open factories can be very costly: at the slightest breeze, capital can be whizzed off to more "favourable" jurisdictions.

There just aren't and won't be enough (traditional) jobs.

I would prefer the government to offer unconditional basic income to every legal resident. Unemployment benefits sound so terrible when there are not enough jobs around. A "citizen dividend", to which everyone is entitled, would be much better. People would be freer to engage in volunteer work. Individuals who look after children or elderly would also be recognised for their work. Not the traditional sense of a job, but hard and necessary work nevertheless.

Unions are fighting to keep (traditional) jobs unnecessarily, and ultimately perpetuating the delusion that everyone can have a (traditional) job, and the emerging myth that without (traditional) jobs we lose our dignity. This is doing their members a disservice. More humane would be for unions to work with society to recognise that we will never have enough (traditional) jobs, and to creatively design a taxation framework that is proper to the 21st century.

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