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How the #TubeStrike Can Stem the Loss of Public Sympathy

How the #TubeStrike Can Stem the Loss of Public Sympathy

The strike has affected millions of commuters

This morning, like many of my friends and colleagues, I crawled out of bed an hour earlier to spend half an hour waiting for a bus that could manage to squeeze in a handful more frustrated passengers, to spend the next 45 minutes pressed up against my fellow Londoners with a metal bar below my ribs and a gentleman’s sandals repeatedly crushing my toes. I can’t say I’m a fan of the tube being down.

Over the last few days I have spent many a conversation lamenting the imminent temporary loss of my regular commute, and almost all my eye-rolling contemporaries have bemoaned the significant salaries that striking tube drivers earn for their work. It’s obviously hard to sympathise with our better-off neighbours when they disrupt an entire capital city. But, if they had so desired, could the unions have gained more public sympathy?

The biggest problem for tube workers in such an aim is the torrent of social media spawned quips and highly shareable stats that are flying around the Twittersphere. During the last tube strike, Facebook was littered with tables and graphs comparing the salaries and training conditions of tube drivers with paramedics and other health workers – or with teachers, firefighters and the police. The vast majority of conversations – both digital and ‘IRL’ – around the strikes parrot the same statistics that tube drivers on average earn nearly £50,000 and have up to 52 days holiday a year. Twitter and Facebook users aren’t alone in their outrage at well-paid tube personnel wreaking havoc on other working Londoners’ commutes – the media has consistently highlighted the pay package of tube drivers in their coverage of the recent union action. The BBC, for example, noted that “according to HM Treasury figures, the drivers’ starting salary of £49,673 means they earn more than 90% of the population.” No wonder everyone around us is annoyed.

Comparisons have been drawn between other essential professions.

Comparisons have been drawn between other essential professions.

But the overwhelming irritation at tube drivers’ pay has dwarfed the key issues for union members: TfL’s lack of clarity on work-life balance for employees and the details on the night shift conditions workers will be required to perform under. This message has been mostly lost on the public, who are generally steadfast in their annoyance at the drivers’ remuneration.

There have been a handful of articles which have tried to debunk certain misconceptions, and which have highlighted how the multi-faceted deals must either be rejected or accepted in full and are “not pick and mix offers”. But the majority of coverage easily stokes the fire of resentment that has been spreading across social media all week.

Whether or not it’s fair and proportionate to disrupt a whole city to make these points heard, it seems to me that the unions could have somewhat improved their chance for public sympathy if they gave a human face to the issues and effectively put the public in the drivers’ shoes. This isn’t easy – I’ve heard several friends announce that they’d kill to get £200 for a night shift, that they’d switch with tube drivers any day for their salary and holiday package. For many people that’s a fair point – but if any of us had signed up to one job and then were demanded to work nights, with only vague assurances on how many nights a year or how much sleep time we’d be afforded after each, we might be more sympathetic to the unions’ cause – even if we don’t support the full extent of their actions.

Some have rallied to back the strike.

Some have rallied to back the strike.

 

It’s possible to see the impact a real-life case study can have on changing stubborn minds. An open letter from a tube driver ahead of last month’s strikes gathered viral support when he explained on Facebook how the proposed measures would affect him personally:

Drivers have had their say.

Drivers have had their say.

The public can sympathise with this kind of personal account, which clearly outlines the possible impact of the terms then proposed. And the unions could go further in putting the public in the drivers’ shoes – highlighting working parents who would need extra overnight childcare to cover the possible many weeks of night shifts, for example. Demonstrating data on the importance of certainty and work-life balance to mental health, perhaps.

It’s no mean feat to draw sympathy from often worse-off Londoners who are directly disrupted by the unions’ actions. But focusing on the human lives and stories behind the issues, alongside being clear about the real-life impact of the proposals, might tease out understanding from even the most toe-crushed, sleep-deprived of commuters.

In defence of the tube strike – we need the human touch

It took me a total of two hours 20 minutes to get to work today, a journey that usually takes under 50 minutes door to door. As I battled my way through the hordes of stranded commuters and tried to avoid being shoved into the armpit of the person next to it would seem natural to curse the RMT. But despite my journey from hell, I support the tube workers’ strike.

The media have tried to pick Bob Crow apart by splashing stories on how much he makes a year, where he lives etc. to diminish his side of the argument. Sorry Daily Mail but I couldn’t care less that Bob Crow went to Brazil on holiday last week or makes £145,000 a year. What I do care about is passenger safety, my safety, on the London Underground, something that Bob Crow is seeking to preserve.

The official line that has been used to try and justify the closures is that fewer than 3 percent of tube journeys start with passengers visiting a ticket office. But given that a total of 1.2 billion passengers travel on the tube every year, that 3 percent represents rather a lot of people. Many of these people will be tourists who contribute millions to our economy each year.

Boris must understand the human cost of his proposals.

Boris must understand the human cost of his proposals.

Of course, businesses evolve. Advances in technology allow us to work smarter, be more efficient and save money but at what cost?

All supermarket shoppers will be familiar with the self-service checkouts that were introduced to increase the speed and ease of your shopping experience or so they said. Personally, I’ve never had a smooth experience using these checkouts especially as there’s always an “unexpected item in the bagging area!” So is it wise to cut 750 jobs on the Underground?

Granted, today’s passengers can handle machines and cards. Modernisation is inevitable but I would still like human beings around on the Underground to ask for help when needed or to make you feel safe when travelling late at night or early in the morning. What happens if you need your oyster card reissued or help planning an alternative route? There will be no one around to help and I highly doubt that most busy commuters will stop to help either.

Every morning I say hello to the lady at the ticket office in West Acton, we’ve been doing this for over two years now. Stopping to chat or waving to her as I run for my train really brightens up my mornings. I’d much rather be greeted by a smiling face than an automated machine any day.

Unmanned ticket offices may be cheaper but the government are seriously overlooking the human cost involved. We’re increasingly losing the human connection, something I don’t believe you can put a price on, as businesses become more ‘efficient’. This is why I’ll continue to support the strikes and remember not to grumble when I fight to get home tonight.