THE BLOG

Why TfL's Union-Bashing Tweet Helps Ruin Things for All of Us

01/12/2014 16:39 GMT | Updated 31/01/2015 10:59 GMT

This lunchtime, TfL took it upon themselves to enlighten us all of the service on the Northern line:

I developed an almost immediate twitch at this purely because of the wording. The idiocy of attacking something for being unnecessary using an unnecessary amount of snark yourself opens up such a tautological black hole that I'm sure none of us have any wish to go down. I'll simply leave that there for us all to shake our heads sadly at and move on to the real issue at hand here, the one that literally made my jaw drop when I saw the tweet: this is possibly the most outrageous summation of bad industrial relations that I've seen in a long time.

Whatever your opinion on the RMT strike, which by the way has happened over the dismissal of a member RMT says has long-term health issues, did not report for duty drunk and "has a specific medical condition", there are set ways for the employer and employees to behave during a walkout like this, set down in laws.

The employees, here represented by RMT, have behaved perfectly within those laws. They have taken up a perfectly legal right to organise a strike, which was balloted correctly, and with a majority. Picket lines haven't erupted into violent behaviour. Decent notice was given to the employer. Importantly, RMT have even said they remained open for discussions through ACAS, an offer of conciliation which TfL chose not to take up.

TfL haven't broken those laws with their tweet, although we've got to bear in mind here that the UK law around employers' responsibilities and workers' rights in strikes has been repeatedly condemned by the International Labour Organisation and the European Committee on Social Rights. A worker's protection in a strike here basically boils down to the fact that your boss can't sack you for striking.

But what TfL have done is make very clear that they are not interested in reconciliation, and are interested in undermining their own employees by badmouthing them to their customers. There is nowhere positive to go when discussions include a public insult that one side's action was unnecessary and an implication that their member is an alcoholic.

Faced with a peevish attitude like this, it's no wonder that RMT have such a fractious relationship with TfL. How are TfL-employed RMT members meant to feel, where are their loyalties meant to lie, if their employer is putting them at risk of abuse by the public by insinuating they're a bunch of bolshy troublemakers sticking up for an irresponsible drunk?

Apart from the obvious result of making future strikes and disruption more likely with an attitude like this, we should all be pissed off at TfL's tweet for another reason: public condemnation of unions and representation of them to over 300k followers as unnecessary and arsey means that all of our rights at work are put at risk.

As the most active union in the third biggest city in Europe, RMT is arguably the public face of an entire movement. How we see them is how we see all unions, and TfL has gone to great pains over a number of years to paint an organisation that campaigned hard for low paid cleaners, prevented unnecessary job cuts, helped the tube stay safe for disabled, BAME and female users, and was led by a man recognised by the transport industry as a moderate as a throwback, donkey-jacketed, hardline bunch of Machiavellians disrupting London for no good reason.

As a union rep myself, I'm met with the attitude that I'm some sort of Wolfie Smith wannabe on a regular basis (although thankfully rarely within my own, union-recognised workplace). "Are you a secret club, like the Masons?", "Are you going to force me to march up and down with a placard?" "Oh, here comes trouble,". It bores me to death, but it also bloody worries me, because the people saying it are inevitably saying it to me just before they go "hey, I've had this thing happen at work..." and tell me a ridiculous story of a problem easily avoidable if a union rep had been in their last meeting with them.

There is no-one who doesn't need a union, but there are plenty who think they don't, or shouldn't, or every time they get the urge to ask for help can't help but conjure up the image of a huge, champagne swilling, red-faced, screaming Bob Crow which the media and TfL together have been only too happy to draw people.

Tweets like this, when viewed as part of a much bigger picture, are a direct threat to the idea that your job should be as safe as possible, that your time spent at work shouldn't make you weep blood and that you should get a fair wage for a fair day's work. TfL aren't just throwing shade at the RMT, they're throwing it at all of us.