Morning Star editor Richard Bagley explains why his friends at the RMT are justified in striking for a £500 Olympic bonus
I think it’s disgusting that bus drivers are given the right to strike.
Actually I don’t, but that’s precisely the loopy sentiment promoted by the London Evening Standard in its reports on the last walkout across the capital. (Incidentally, the newspaper’s owner, the oligarch Alexander Lebedev, has an estimated wealth of £2bn.)
As always the tired old rhetoric of ransom and greed was wheeled out to pan the 20,000 drivers who walked. Though that number doesn’t include those at three firms banned by a last-ditch injunction granted over a possible breach of anti-union laws – Britain’s most ridiculous undemocratic and convoluted red tape.
Greed? That’s Lebedev and his billions, it’s dodgy Bob Diamond and his estimated £95 million bank balance, or Mayor Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and his reported £5,000-a-week Daily Telegraph column, plus £2,700 a week for his day job.
What is not greedy is asking for a mere £17 extra a day to ferry around 800,000 confused visitors rammed into the capital’s buses in the summer heat.
Some of these Games tourists will end up supping on Olympic Park beer at £7.23 a pint. Now that’s really being held to ransom.
These dusty old clichés peddled by the London Evening Standard would be comical if they weren’t so offensive to their readers’ intelligence.
Media reports on trade unionists often read like a horror-comic strip aimed at money-obsessed types afraid they’ll have to hand over a few quid, and the self-absorbed middle classes, most of whom have probably never even met – heaven forbid – a real-life one.
If these Georginas and Tristans have particularly limited attention spans they may even think there’s a species of dinosaur called Trade Unionosaurus Rex.
This comic strip consists of sinister baddies ordering around armies of the unwashed to do their evil bidding. Such as getting a decent wage, sick pay or rights to toilet breaks.
Rail, Maritime and Transport Union general secretary Bob Crow is wheeled out as a bogeyman to scare the children.
He’s an easy target; a working-class accent, a Millwall fan with a shaved head, someone who shoots from the hip and isn’t afraid to voice his socialist politics.
But this comic book depiction is just that. “Poppycock!” as de Pfeffel might bluster between pay cheques.
“The seven top TfL managers got Olympic payouts totalling £560,000”
The reality of course is that union members from all walks of life elect their general secretaries, who act as a kind of CEO. A union has a network of officials who are there to voice their members’ concerns and anger when employers are too incompetent, stingy, greedy or plain aggressive to engage.
The pattern of London’s bus strike – by members of the Unite union not RMT – reflects precisely this.
That a dispute has broken out so close to the Olympics is a sign that somebody has got things very wrong at Transport for London and its subcontractors.
Could it be that in allocating all the hundreds of millions splashed on the Games no-one fought the corner of the people actually expected to keep London moving?
Or was it that the only individuals considered worthy of reward were the seven top TfL managers with Olympic payouts totalling £560,000?
Whatever the case, the transport firms which operate buses and trains around the capital for TfL racked up £2bn profit at the last count. The gap between employees and employer is a mere £6m.
So the call from bus drivers for a one-off few hundred quid to bring them in line with other transport workers, including “Boris Bikes” operators who won a £500 payout this week, is chicken feed.
It’s clear the cash is there. The worst it would do to bridge the gap is put these firms’ sums out a bit. The upside for them is that it may help dampen down industrial flames which will likely grow larger after the Olympic Torch has left East London.
The bottom line is: people don’t vote for strike action in percentages numbering the mid-90s unless there’s a lot of anger.
“Ah,” cry the Witchfinder Generals, “but what was the turnout?”
Thirty-eight per cent on a postal vote, precisely the turnout that decided the London mayoralty – and while we’re at it Johnson was some way off that big nine-o approval rating too.
In any case, it’s clear that most of London’s bus drivers voted with their feet, if not all of them via their ballot papers.
They’re likely to do it again, too, whether the legal screws are tightened or not. That’s the new mood in austerity-for-some-of-us Britain.
It’s also the price that shortsighted employers pay for only seeing their shareholders’ interests and mistaking whom it is who really brings home the bacon.
Richard Bagley is editor of the Morning Star newspaper, Britain’s foremost socialist newspaper