Strikes, strikes and more strikes. That seems to be the only consistent feature of the service provided by London Underground.
There are no fewer than three separate disputes which could cause stoppages over the holiday period, which has become an annual game of brinkmanship between the unions and management. While many of these disputes, like last year’s threat to the Circle Line, are called off at the last minute, they demonstrate that industrial relations in the Underground are on a par with the relationship between Manchester United and Arsenal.
Most of it is down to history. Management in London Underground has tradition stretching back to the War of rolling over and allowing its tummy to be tickled when confronted with the threat of union action. As a result, unions have become more militant because the hard line had borne fruit in the past.
Even when Underground management was prepared to stand up to the workforce, its political masters, worried about the politics effects of strikes, caved in. At first, it seemed Ken Livingstone was going to follow in their footsteps, but because he is now prepared to take a harder line, albeit without making a lot of noise about it, these disputes are going to the brink.
Moreover, it has always been easy for a relatively small group of workers to cause chaos by taking industrial action. Transport systems are always vulnerable to such action, particularly if drivers, who cannot be replaced at short notice, are involved. With that in mind, the unions call ballots before negotiating procedures are fully exhausted, thus quickly upping the ante.
The minutiae of these disputes is mind numbing and makes any sane person want to clash heads together, hard. ASLEF is defending the right of a driver who has passed four signals at red because, it claims, management has breached its own safety rules and not followed the procedures by the book. Managers say they have and that such a driver should not be allowed to continue to operate trains.
Most travellers on the Tube would agree with that but the union is pressing ahead with action despite the fact that the man concerned has been promised that he would receive the same wage in an alternative job.
There is a glimmer of hope for the future. London Underground is now under the capable hands of Tim O’Toole, who has impressed in his first 18 months in the job and it also has a new head of employee relations, Gerry Duffy, with a good reputation. However, there are years of bad feeling to rein back and ultimately management may have to bear the odd strike or two to show they can face down the workforce.
As well as showing strength, management must improve its relationship with the staff on the ground. The ballots for these actions are often won by strong majorities, even though the issues seem trivial and that suggests widespread disaffection which the union is able to exploit. Until that is remedied, Londoners will have to expect more of the same.