It is not easy being a Londoner these days. The city, despite all its evident charms and attractions, is becoming increasingly expensive, crowded, polluted and noisy. The housing market has been disfigured thanks to a toxic combination of city bankers and large-scale immigration, not to mention a reluctance on behalf of government to build more affordable housing across the capital. Moving around town has also become nigh on impossible.
Indeed, it is this last problem which has become almost too intolerable for words. Not content with providing quite possibly the worst and almost certainly the most expensive underground service in Europe, tube workers have threatened Londoners with strikes on and off now for the best part of two years.
At weekends, meanwhile, parts of the underground are routinely shut down due to engineering works. Now, some will argue that these improvements to the system are necessary and that tube workers have no choice but to carry them out at weekends. Nonsense. In other countries, the ‘health & safety’ excuses that are routinely wheeled out by virtually all of our public sector workers whenever they are called upon to do something that is not in their contracts are simply swept aside by government and employers. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night in my hotel room whilst on a business trip to South Africa last October.
Yes, it was inconvenient to have my sleep disturbed, but it also dawned upon me that these construction workers where working hard and would get the work done in half the time that it would take our own public sector workers to carry out a similar task. In South Africa, there were no excuses about not being able to handle heavy machinery after a certain time of the day. After all, if surgeons can perform complicated operations in the middle of the night, why should tube workers not perform their duties at a similar time? But instead, we Londoners are subjected to the misery of weekends ruined by four of the ugliest words in the English language: Rail Replacement Bus Service. Given our attitude to work, it is little wonder that the BRICS (including South Africa) are taking over the world and outperforming the UK in virtually every significant economic indicator. But, I digress.
Turning back now to the threatened strikes, could it not be argued that Londoners have suffered enough without tube drivers deciding that they will make life even more unbearable for commuters by going on strike over some trivial dispute regarding pay and conditions? My own feeling is that key workers, such as train and ambulance drivers, should not be allowed to go on strike. Punto e basta, as we say in Italy. Whilst they may have legitimate grievances, they should not have an absolute right to disrupt the lives of Londoners who have nothing to do with what is, ultimately, a private and internal dispute.
Clever lawyers tell me that this is a contractual matter and that public sector contracts are negotiated in a different way to private sector contracts. Then change those contracts. If I, as a private sector employee, decided to go on strike over pay and conditions, I would almost certainly get sacked. It should not be any different for public sector employees.
However, even if a blanket ban on strikes proves to be impossible, I would certainly favour considerably stricter rules on when and how workers are allowed to withdraw their labour. The present threshold for ballots is an irrelevance and needs urgently to be raised to make it more difficult for strikes to take place. In short, it is up to the government to complete Margaret Thatcher’s work. Over to you, chaps.