When did Bob Crow, the General Secretary of the RMT Union, last compare you to Hitler? For me and my Conservative colleagues on the London Assembly the answer is 'last Monday' when we released ‘Struck Out’, a report suggesting an alternative to strike action on the London Underground. 'Struck Out' makes the case for Parliament to pass legislation banning strike action on the Tube. In return transport unions would gain the right to binding pendulum arbitration if 50%+1 of their Members voted to take a dispute to that stage. The report finds that 59% of Londoners believe it is too easy to strike with only 14% believing that it’s too difficult.
Binding Pendulum Arbitration (BPA) would entail an independent arbiter choosing between two competing positions. So if Transport for London (TfL) calls for a pay freeze for Tube workers and the RMT want a 10% increase the arbiter would have to decide between those options. He cannot suggest a compromise. The result of this is that both parties have an incentive to be reasonable. Under BPA, calling for a ridiculous wage increase is not shrewd negotiating; it is simply a way of ensuring your opponent wins.
The current system – allowing a few unions to exploit their monopolistic position to squeeze ever more money out of London fare-payers and taxpayers by almost constantly threatening strike action – effectively encourages extremism. The unions who aim for the highest possible pay increases for their Members are likely to end up being most successful irrespective of the cost to ordinary Londoners.
It is a considerable cost! In 2007 the London Chamber of Commerce estimated that a day of strike action on the Tube cost London's economy £48 million. When strike action doesn't go ahead it is often because TfL feels it has little choice but to give in to wage demands which allows tube drivers to earn up to £61,000 a year.
When strike action does occur those most affected will often be amongst London's lowest paid workers. It is worth considering that many people – if they are unable to travel to their office could reschedule some meetings, take a few more conference calls than planned and work from home.
In contrast these options are unavailable to those who are the cleaners, waiters and cashiers. There is a terrible irony when some unions claim to represent the workers but, by choosing to strike, end up punishing some of the lowest-paid workers in London.
That is not to decry home working. In March my colleague Roger Evans launched 'Home Works', a report calling on the Mayor to help facilitate home working in London via the introduction of more flexible ticketing options. The expansion of home working and increasing people's ability to work from home has many advantages, not least that it could really reduce the cost of strike action. Clearly it makes sense for the Mayor to pursue any option available to him that would cut the cost – and therefore the effectiveness – of strike action and helping more people to work from home admirably fulfils that goal.
Nevertheless it is only Parliament that is able to change the law to restrict or ban strike action. Given we are in Coalition it seems unlikely that this could pass before the next General Election. If it does not, I hope that Parliament has a chance to vote on this issue so that Londoners can see which MPs stand up for ordinary working Londoners and who stands with Bob Crow and the RMT.