Dominic Raab is MP for Esher and Walton
London’s commuters are bracing themselves for the longest ever spate of tube strikes over the next month, as Bob Crow’s Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union calls six days of industrial action. The justification? RMT wants the reinstatement of two tube workers, one sacked for breaching safety procedures, the other for abusing a fellow tube worker. Mr Crow has accused London Underground of victimising and harassing union activists. While London Underground stand steadfastly by their decision, both cases will be settled by an employment tribunal. Both employees remain on full pay. So how can it be right for RMT to inflict such unprecedented economic damage on the capital, and widespread chaos on commuters?
The last tube strike cost the capital around £50 million each day, disrupting over a million people. The latest strikes risk even worse, the last thing our fragile economy needs right now. In typical Soviet-style double-speak, Mr Crow trumpeted a ‘massive vote for action by tube drivers’. In fact, he is unleashing chaos with backing of just 379 tube drivers (or 29% of RMT members), whilst ‘instructing’ all tube drivers not to show up for work – whether they voted for strike action or not, and in spite of the pay they will forfeit.
More broadly, recent surveys by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development found that, in the public sector, 54% of employees believe workers are unwilling to lose pay by going on strike, yet 79% of human resources managers expect industrial action over the next year anyway. Most workers want to go to work and get paid. But, hard-line union bosses like Bob Crow are more interested in pursuing a militant agenda. Crow claims to be defending his members from bullying. But, he happily stands by his right-hand man, Steve Hedley, convicted and fined for assaulting a colleague who crossed a picket to work at Mile End station last year.
Leftwing academics like Professor Keith Ewing have rushed to the defence of Bob Crow, pointing to European human rights treaties that guarantee a right to strike. But, Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights makes clear that trade union rights may be subject to restrictions "for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others" – including tube employees who want to work, and the wider public going about their daily lives. Few deny a right to strike. The question is whether there ought to be safeguards to prevent a small and militant minority holding the hard-working majority to ransom. That is why I have proposed a requirement – limited to the emergency services and transport sector – that strike action require the support of a majority of union members. In practice, it would affect few strikes. But, it would prevent precisely the arbitrary abuse of union powers that London is about to suffer.
Bob Crow fires back that this is hypocritical. After all, MPs don’t need a majority of the vote to get elected. This is populist chaff. No-one else wields the unique powers the unions have. If an MP coerced the withdrawal of labour from a business or vital public service, he would be sued for the damage caused. And rightly so. MPs are subject to the ordinary rules of contract and tort law – just like everyone else. Only union bosses have the immunity that gives them such far-reaching power. Is it so unreasonable to ask that it be exercised responsibly? Of course, if Bob Crow wants to talk about hypocrisy, he can explain why – despite earning £145k per year – he saves thousands by living in social housing meant for those on low incomes.
London Mayor, Boris Johnson, has condemned the latest strike action as "idiotic", while Transport Secretary Philip Hammond warned RMT leaders that "they are simply strengthening the arguments of those who want changes to our industrial relations laws". The government is wise not to provoke a confrontation with the unions. But, Crow and his cronies need no excuse to create turmoil – and they are unlikely to be placated by anything the government or London Underground can reasonably offer. The imminent strikes on the tube show it is high time for reform.