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Tube Strike August 2015: Should More Of Us Earn As Much As London Underground Drivers?

05/08/2015 17:13 BST | Updated 05/08/2015 17:59 BST

Every Tube strike, including the one due to begin Wednesday, triggers griping about the generous pay and leave London Underground drivers already receive.

The starting salary for drivers on the Tube is £49,673 a year and they receive 43 days of annual leave, compared with 52 days of leave for other London Underground staff.

But should we begrudge people for having the sort of terms and conditions we would all want for ourselves?

"Are Tube strikers work-shy fopps, hungry for holiday, while doing very little? Probably not," our editor Stephen Hull blogged today.

"It seems odd, when so many of us complain about being overworked and underpaid, that we hate a group of staff who we accuse of being underworked and overpaid."

tube driver

Is the pay and conditions of Tube drivers something to aspire to rather than resent?

One reason not all workers can earn as much as that is they lack such powerful advocates. The generous pay packets for Tube staff undoubtedly reflects the strength of their unions in fighting their members' corner over the years.

Jayne Holliday, associate head of HR Service at West Midlands firm QualitySolicitors Talbot’s, told HuffPost UK: "Considering whether it would be practical for the majority of the public to receive such packages assumes that the majority of industries could instigate such as strong union movement.

"Whilst workers in areas such as social care have long struggled to find a common voice to fight their corner, it is questionable whether other industries would be able to collectively mobilise themselves any better than these traditionally underpaid key workers."

She added: "Regardless of your opinion of the Tube drivers latest industrial action, the current package the average driver enjoys is a ringing endorsement of the strength of their union and is an example to any other industry that feels it is suffering from wide-scale under-representation or devaluation."

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There have been some developments that show much better pay and holiday for staff is possible.

Richard Branson announced last year Virgin would allow staff to take as much leave as they want - presumably within reason - and American entrepreneur Dan Price cut his $1,000,000 salary to $70,000 and recently said this would be the starting salary for his company. Maybe we could aspire for there to be starting salaries in many industries where the pay is so high.

Experts in employment law told The Huffington Post UK that Tube drivers' circumstances were unique and it was hard to foresee a world in which most professions, even ones that required far more academic qualifications than Tube drivers, would ever match Tube drivers for starting salary.

"One of my colleagues, after six years training to earn the right to call himself a solicitor, doing a job he hated, and working every hour of the day and night to pay off his student loans said he seriously contemplated giving it all up and applying to become a Tube driver," said Beverley Sunderland, managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors.

"The money looks attractive but whilst trainee solicitors might have to work like slaves for the minimum wage, they get to feel the sun on their faces if they go out for a sandwich, they know what time of day it is by looking out of the window and they don’t need to worry about people jumping in front of them as they approach a platform."

But our experts repeatedly referred to the role of powerful unions in achieving higher Tube drivers' pay, something most other industries lack.

Richard Nicolle, a partner in the employment law department at Stewarts Law, said: "I don't doubt you could probably find people willing to drive Tube trains for significantly less than the salaries being paid.

"It is a product of collectivisation, union representation and industrial muscle... That's the obvious reason why Tube drivers' pay has maybe got out of kilter with market rates."

But, despite the examples of Virgin and a wealthy American entrepreneur, paying new starters in jobs that require relatively few qualifications as much as Tube drivers remains unlikely.

When asked how practical it would be for most workers, Mr Nicolle: "Completely impractical. A significant proportion of people are in the public sector and with austerity, terms and conditions have moved less favourably with nil or minimal pay increases and reduction in pension contributions and so on.

"You could not have a situation where everyone was being paid at those levels."

Karen Bexley, head of employment law at law firm MLP Law, said the difficulties of paying people far more were shown when the hospitality industry struggled to deal with the increase in the national living wage to £7.20 from next April.

She said it was hard to say whether giving staff more, or even unlimited holiday time would mean people taking more or less holiday.

richard branson

Richard Branson announced Virgin would give some of its staff the discretion to decide how much holiday to take

Speaking of the Virgin policy, she said: "In reality, I think it’s a great PR move for businesses, as employees probably won't take that many extra holidays – most will probably take their longer holidays as normal as the time they usually have off is all they can manage around work."

Sara Ellison, head of HR and employment law at solicitors' firm Taylor Bracewell, said employers could look on generous pay and conditions "in both a positive and negative light".

"Each job needs to be paid in line with the specifics of the post which can be connected to skills required, risk involved... For many employees, pay is a major factor for going out to work. The better the pay and benefits they receive, the less likely they are to look elsewhere," she said.

"Naturally, higher salary costs are a cost that needs to be covered by the employer and may reduce funds needed elsewhere in the business. Setting standards of paying some staff more will usually mean the company needs to consider improving others pay and benefits to prevent conflict between the workforce."

Jo Cairns, an HR consultant also at Taylor Bracewell, said comparing salaries in completely different sectors was not easy.

She added: "Driving a Tube is accompanied by particular stresses such as the considerably higher than average numbers of suicides occurring on Tube lines directly in front of Tube drivers, which fortunately the vast majority of workers do not have to experience.

"The morale of the story is not to jump to hasty assumptions and feed jealousy."