The cost of the U.K. Tube strike

Marketplace Staff Sep 6, 2010

The cost of the U.K. Tube strike

Marketplace Staff Sep 6, 2010


Tess Vigeland: It may be Labor Day in this country, but in other parts of the world, it is no-labor day. Unions all over France have called for a strike to begin tonight over the government’s plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. More than a million public employees in South Africa suspended a four-week-long strike over pay raises and housing subsidies. And millions of commuters are facing travel chaos in London. Workers on the subway system there, called the Tube, walked off the job today.

Joining us with the details is our European bureau chief Stephen Beard. Hi Stephen.

Stephen Beard: Hello Tess.

Vigeland: So what impact is this strike having on London? Is the capital crippled at this point?

Beard: Not yet. It’s the key group of workers — the train drivers, the signalers and the station staff — walked quite late this evening, so the full effect won’t be felt until tomorrow morning’s rush hour and the evening rush hour. London at least has had plenty of warning and the Tube managers and travelers have been making preparations.

Vigeland: And how have they been preparing, then, if they had all this warning time?

Beard: Well, the transport authorities have laid on 100 extra buses. They’ve charted extra river boats to ferry 10,000 people up and down the Thames. People have bene urge to go to work by bike. There’ll be special escorted bike routes across the city. And if previous Tube strikes are anything to go by, we’ll see a lot of people on roller skates in London tomorrow. And a lot of people walking. But are they going to beat the strike? I doubt it. 3.5 million people use the Tube everyday. This strike is going to cause major disruptions.

Vigeland: And at some economic cost, I would assume. Do we know how hard that might hit the London economy?

Beard: Difficult to get a precise figure, but the London Chamber of Commerce reckons it’s going to cost London businesses $75 million — that’s for a one-day strike.

Vigeland: That is a lot of coin. Stephen, tell us what the strike is about there. Is it pay, is it working conditions, something else?

Beard: It’s about job cuts. The Tube management wants to shed 800 station staff positions. These are jobs for people mostly in ticket offices. Getting rid of these jobs would save around $25 million a year. Now, many of the workers involved in this dispute say there’s a bigger picture at work here. Union organizer Steve Hedley says these job cuts are part of the “new austerity.” He says all public sector workers should resist.

Steve Hedley: The government plans 25 percent cuts in the public sector to people that are going to cause misery not only in the railway industry, but right across the pace. And workers better get up and get organized and get behind us and get organized in their own trade unions, because this government’s determined to dismantle the welfare state. And we’ve got to stop ’em.

Beard: Now the man who’s ultimately responsible for the operation of the Tube is the London mayor, Boris Johnson. He says the strike is politically motivated and doesn’t have the support of many Londoners.

Boris Johnson: Quite frankly, I think almost everybody in London understands that at a time of very difficult financial squeeze, you need to make essential reforms.

Beard: If this dispute is not resolved, there’ll be another 24-hour strike every four weeks on the Tube until December. You could call this, though, Britain’s first austerity strike. And as the government prepares this fall to spell out all the details of its budget cuts, there could be many more of these disruptions in the weeks and months ahead.

Vigeland: Well Stephen, I would ask you’re getting work, but I know you live out in the lovely countryside. So not a problem?

Beard: I’ve always got my roller skates.

Vigeland: Sounds good. Stephen Beard, thanks so much.

Beard: OK Tess.

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