Forget the basket stealing, quarrels over bargains and queue jumping. For many avid shoppers, getting to the sales this year was almost more stressful than the shopping itself thanks to the Boxing Day tube strikes. Central London tube services almost ground to a halt as a result of the industrial action, with services along the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Central lines all but non-existent. All in all, it wasn’t quite the festive and alluring atmosphere London retailers had hoped for to kick off their all-important Christmas sales.
But what exactly was the quarrel? Initially, train driver union ASLEF had demanded that drivers who work on bank holidays, including Boxing Day, be paid three times the normal daily wage and days off in lieu to compensate. The demand was soundly rejected by London Underground (LU), who branded it an “outrageous claim”, sparking strike threats from the union. LU’s subsequent attempts to halt the strikes through the High Court, by pointing out that members had also been balloted who were not having to work on Boxing Day, proved unsuccessful, and so the strike rumbled on as planned.
…a hysterical call to industrial warfare…
And yet while strikes over public section pensions in November attracted widespread public support, such sympathy appeared to be lacking here, perhaps on account of the strike’s timing and the extent of the demands. The usual media outlets deplored the irresponsibility and militancy of the unions on their front pages, and even the left-leaning the Guardian criticised the strikers. Its editorial deemed the decision “a hysterical call to industrial warfare” which had “deflated a much-needed retail boost”. It went on to point out that ordinary shop workers might be the ones to “count the cost” of a drop in sales visitors, should loss of revenue from strikes cause yet more businesses to go under and lead to further unemployment.
Indeed, the strikes seem to have been perceived by many as an irresponsible infliction of pain upon retailers who have already weathered a nightmare year. “It is completely unreasonable of ASLEF to hold London and its businesses to ransom through yet more Tube strikes”, said Colin Stanbridge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce, “retailers have already had one of their toughest years with recent sales figures showing a decline year on year”. “Tube drivers are overpaid,” added one exasperated Tweeter, “and the sooner they are automated out of existence, the better”. If the driverless tube train scandal earlier this year is anything to go by, he might just have his way.
…witnessing suicides on a regular basis…
The strikers weren’t without their supporters though, with sympathisers speaking out in print and online. “[I] would love to see you drive a train, up at 4am, witnessing suicides on a regular basis”, retaliated one supporter of the strikers’ cause. For the moment tube users can rest easy on the strike front, but not for long. The next three strikes are planned for 16 January, 2 February and 13 February.
As the 2012 Olympics creep ever closer, those involved in planning the games may be getting decidedly nervous at the ongoing strikes. For now, however, ASLEF remain adamant that there are no plans to disrupt the games with industrial action. Nevertheless, transport bosses will be only to aware of how crippling an Olympic strike would be. And that threat alone may yet be enough to force London Underground to back down and reconsider the union’s demands.