This evening sees the beginning of a strike by workers on London Underground and with the reliability of a Swiss train timetable, the mainstream media has been quick to dust-off the hackneyed cliché of the tanned, well-fed, well-paid train driver holding London to ransom at any opportunity to chisel money out of TfL. To describe the dispute in this way is to do a disservice to readers: fundamentally, it has little to do with the money on offer and by portraying it as 'yet another tube strike' is to ignore the severity of the real issues at stake.
It will be the biggest tube strike for over a decade as all four unions representing London Underground workers are participating, resulting in total stoppage of the network. The RMT, TSSA and Unite will walk out at 1830, with ASLEF members walking out at 2130, all for a 24-hour period so, overall, industrial action will span 27 hours. London Underground will be putting contingency measures in place to allow normal service to resume as quickly as possible; expect services to start winding-down this afternoon and not back to normal by at least Friday morning.
Despite more recent negotiations, the last chance to avert the strike was on Tuesday afternoon. In a pathetic, posturing attempt to dress the strike up as a pay dispute, London Underground made a not unreasonable pay offer - in line with pay offers at other train operating companies - but only gave unions two hours to accept the proposals, before walking out of talks at ACAS. That's nowhere near enough time for unions to democratically consult a total of 20,000 workers, particularly on a problem that has been negotiated for months.
Once again, the media were able to portray the tube unions as the greedy villains of the piece, with no mention of intransigent London Underground management whose destined-to-fail negotiating tactics make them look like they actively want the strike to go ahead!
So if the dispute isn't over pay, then what is it about? In the simplest terms, it's about rostering. As the proposals currently stand, tube workers are being opened up to the possibility of working unlimited night shifts, running roughshod over their entitlement to a life outside work. It's akin an office manager telling their 9-to-5 staff that they are to work from 2 o'clock in the afternoon to 10 at night without asking if that's alright. None of the unions involved are opposed to the Night Tube per se - introducing it would bring London Underground up to speed with the more complex New York Subway to an extent, but limits need to be placed on the number of night and weekend shifts individual members of staff will be expected to work. This is vitally important for passenger safety, as well as the health of those working the night shift.
Drivers on national rail have always worked night shifts - usually a tranche of them every few weeks. The biggest difficulty is trying to get enough sleep during the daytime. A blindfold or blackout curtains are a necessity. Earplugs are needed to drown out noise from the outside world (worse luck if there are builders next door) and it's always best to unplug the phone and take the batteries out of doorbell. These things aren't always possible and don't always work. Invariably, some disturbance interrupts sleep. Those working night shift generally lose between one and four hours sleep each day.
Sleep loss is cumulative and, after a few night shifts, fatigue can impair decision-making, initiative, ability to process information and vigilance - all things a train driver needs to maintain at an optimal level in order to maintain the professional standards the job demands. Worryingly, effects of sleep loss are generally not recognised by the individual until the fatigue becomes severe - sometimes too late to prevent an operating incident. Is this really what TfL want for the Underground?
Life stops on night shift. At best, you get a 'Hello, Goodbye' relationship with your partner and family, with you walking in through the door, as they're going out to work and school. At worst, you don't see your loved ones for days. With the sleep deprivation you can struggle to remember what they even look like. Relationships suffer, possibly already under the strain of other unsociable-hour shifts. If you're single, as Amy Roberts - the Northern Line's youngest driver - explains, it's difficult enough trying to date around working the tube's normal hours. In the WiFi-less depths of the network, you can't even check Tinder.
It has been shown that for men who work night shift, there is an increased risk of certain cancers: prostate, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, pancreatic, rectal, colon, bladder and lung. Type 2 diabetes is common among train drivers, with years of eating and sleeping at irregular intervals taking their toll. Should the condition become severe enough to require regular administrations of insulin, then it's likely they will have to give up driving and seek alternative employment elsewhere.
For all these reasons, tube workers should not accept London Underground's rostering until some guarantees are put in place that will prevent the possibility of working unlimited night shifts. No financial inducement is worth the toll wrought by working them on an endless basis and London Underground would do well to take heed of this. 98% of ASLEF members who voted in the strike ballot (turnout 81.3%) voted in favour of strike action, blowing proposed government strike ballot thresholds clear out of the water. This is an issue that won't be swept under the carpet and the public should lend tube workers their full support.