I read a rather nifty article in the Telegraph earlier which claims that today’s Tube strike could cost the capital anywhere between £50 million and £300 million, depending on which source you look at.
Assuming it is somewhere in the middle – around £175 million – that works out at £21 for every person living in London.
Put another way, it is the cost of employing around 6,300 NHS nurses for a year, based on an average London nurse’s salary of £27,700 – a mere 55% of a Tube driver’s salary.
£175 million could also pay for: Margaret Thatcher’s funeral 17 times over; putting 3,888 students through a medical doctorate at King’s College London; or buying 67,307,692 regular-size Starbucks lattes – just under the average daily number of coffees purchased every day in London.
You could even employ 1,200 Bob Crows. But I digress…
According to Mayor Boris Johnson, Tube drivers are paid £49,673 a year for a typical 36 hour week, and enjoy 43 days holiday a year. But let’s not forget that it’s not just the Tube’s drivers going on strike. Station staff – on an average wage of £29,000 per annum with 52 days of holiday – will also be joining them.
All London Underground staff will receive a 2% pay rise this year, along with inflation-proofed pay rises in 2016 and 2017. Alright for some.
Due to the sweaty suited-up City types who are normally asked by TV crews to make a comment about the Tube strikes on the Six O’Clock news, it is widely assumed that this is an accurate representation of the average person who will be affected. In fact, this couldn’t be further from reality.
It is well known that with the advent of portable electronic devices and cloud technology, you can pretty much do anything from anywhere. If you feel like tweeting on the toilet (as I often do) you absolutely can. Conference calls in the bath? Why not! (No, really, I knew someone who did this…). Web meetings with the entire senior team whilst sitting in your pants with the cat on your lap? Of course. Essentially, it is perfectly possible to run an entire business without leaving the comfort of your own home, and it’s great.
But not everyone has this luxury. Here are some of the worst hit people when Tube strikes kick in:
1 – Cleaners
Spare a thought for the cleaners of London, waking at 4.30am to get into work by 6.30am, usually travelling from outside of the M25 to reach their jobs. At an average of £6.90 an hour, they earn 25% of a Tube driver’s wage. They are still expected to pay tax on this, and also fund their own travel to and from work. Unlike office workers, cleaners must be present at their place of work in order to do their job. You can’t clean remotely. Not yet, anyway.
The entry requirements for a cleaner are pretty non-discriminatory. As long as you can read and write English to a reasonable level, are willing to work hard and are trustworthy, that tends to be good enough. This is not too far off the entry requirements for a Tube driver – you don’t need to be qualified past GCSE and, by the sound of some of the announcements during the morning rush hour, high-quality English isn’t a requirement either.
Both of these jobs are unskilled for the most part, and require minimal previous experience or qualifications. I wonder how many cleaners would jump at the chance of a day’s work at a Tube driver’s rate?
2 – Hospitality & Retail Staff
Caterers, hotel employees, waiters, waitresses… all the people that Londoners are generally quite rude to on a daily basis also have no choice but to go into work. Hourly wages and the inability to work remotely mean that they have to make their way to work no matter what. Again, a lot of these people cannot afford inner-London prices and so have a long way to travel in the morning.
The lady who served me in Pret A Manger round the corner from my office yesterday told me that her working day started at 5am, and she usually works a 10 hour shift. I felt bad for complaining about ‘needing’ my coffee at that point… but then I remembered my first job in retail. Anyone who has spent longer than a week serving the general public will vouch that this experience gives you a tolerance for human discourtesy which is utterly invaluable for the rest of your life, and I was sure that I wouldn’t be the most self-absorbed customer that she had that day.
In contrast, the average Tube driver’s day is around 9 hours. Granted, they also have to rise very early and are often subjected to abuse by Londoners, but when things get a bit tough they can always have a drink on the job, safe in the knowledge that their brothers in arms will go on strike if they get caught. I can’t see anyone lasting at Pret too long with that behaviour, or any other job for that matter. Apart from MPs.
3 – Public Services
That’s right – some of the worst victims of strikes are… people who go on strikes. It’s quite beautiful in a way, but also bloody awful if you’re sitting in A&E at St Thomas’ while half the staff are stuck out in Leytonstone or Croydon having to navigate several buses and a tram to get into work. Medical workers on call who are reliant on public transport in central London are put in a particularly difficult situation on strike days, and this can put lives at risk.
Staff on lower wages within the Tube system itself also don’t do well out of strike days – it is essentially a day without pay, after all, and not all of them are rolling in cash. Paramedics, police and firefighters are often given their own vehicles so having no Tube services isn’t exactly a major issue, however, increased congestion on the roads and overcrowding on alternative methods of transport can cause a strain on these services. Services which we as taxpayers all have a vested interest in, which begs the question: why are London taxpayers so content to be taken for a ride by the unions?
The majority of people that you will speak to about the strikes will pull a face and say ‘oh it’s a pain, isn’t it’. I’m not sure if this is British politeness or whether this is simply all it is to most people – a minor inconvenience. True, it is not exactly a cataclysmic life-changing event, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that some people can be quite overdramatic when it comes to responding to the strikes (me included on occasion), but this is partly because the complacency of Londoners is incredibly frustrating.
It is not the act of the strike which is so rage-inducing – there are lots of ways to get round it and many people do – but the actual structure and malevolence of the unions behind the strikes is something more people should pay attention to and care about. It is an outdated system, and it seems to me that as unions become more and more irrelevant, their death throes will kick out increasingly ridiculous demands which us taxpayers will end up having to pay for.
So who gets screwed the hardest by the strikes? Well, it’s all of us. We do not get a better service for this increase in funding. Trains are still delayed, overcrowded, too hot and strangely scented, and there’s a chance that we won’t even get a night service by mid-September if the unions continue to get their way against ineffective Transport for London negotiators. We are dragging behind other major cities around the world in terms of our infrastructure, and it is unnecessary strike days, indolent politicians and crooked unions which are holding us back.
I would secretly love to see rival picket lines of irate, dishevelled commuters standing up to the strikers with pithy slogans and crudely written signs. At least it would be a balanced way of doing things. Unfortunately, they have jobs to get to and it’s likely to take them much longer than usual, so stopping to shout at strikers will start eating into coffee time – and that just won’t do.