In sympathy

Getting home this evening can’t have been easy for those of you reading this in the UK’s fair capital city, thanks to a tube strike which has brought nine of the London Underground tube lines to a complete standstill. And given that it’s a 72 hour walkout, it’s not exactly going to be a walk in the park to get to or from work for the next few days. Unless you live near Hampstead or Marble Arch, that is, in which case a walk in the park might actually be the only way you get to work.

It’s a clash over benefits and pensions that has caused the latest eviction of toys from the RMT pram by general secretary Bob Crow, and there’s the threat of another 72-hour walkout at the start of next week if Ken Livingstone and co don’t give the unions the reassurances that they’re looking for. Given that Ken has already called the strike “one of the most purposeless ever called”, there’s clearly plenty of mileage in this one yet. Which is more than can be said for the trains for the next couple of days.

Sadly, tube strikes are just one of those things that Londoners have been forced to get used to over the last twenty years or so. Maybe it’s the spirit of the blitz, but there’s something that allows Londoners to bond together over the difficulties that face them all, such as the IRA bombs and bomb threats in the 80s, the July 7 terrorist attacks, or a week-long Daniel O’Donnell residency at the Royal Albert Hall.

New Yorkers might be OK with Daniel O’Donnell, but they’re not so prepared to put up with a subway strike. In fact there have only been three strikes in the 100+ year history of the system, the last one being a mere two days back in December 2005. Before that, there was an eleven day walkout in 1980, after the Metropolitan Transport Authority responded to the union’s request for a 30% pay rise by offering them 3%. I make the same 30% pay rise request every year, but sadly all my employers to date have crossed the one-man picket line and carried on working, until I finally give up and sheepishly slink back into the office at about 10.15.

But the lack of strikes can be linked directly to the first ever New York subway strike, which came in 1966. The twelve day walkout brought the city to a standstill, and led the following year to the Taylor Law. Section 210 of the Taylor Law not only bans New York state public employees from striking, and compelling them to binding arbitration, it also stipulates that employees who do strike are fined twice their salary for each day they strike.

While the Taylor Law does help unions in some ways (allowing public employees the right to organise and elect union reps, and defining boundaries for employers in negotiations and agreements the unions), it’s a tough piece of legislation that effectively nips striking in the bud and denies the right to peaceful and effective protest. It’s almost impossible to imagine it happening in the UK, where even the fire services are allowed to register their unhappiness by striking.

That said, one result of the Taylor Law being in force for the 2005 strike was not only a fine of $2.5m for the union, but also ten days in prison for the union leader Roger Toussaint. No matter how much you’re inconvenienced by the tube strike in London this week, a fine of more than a million pounds seems excessively harsh and punitive.

But ten days in prison for Bob Crow? Now there’s something that would put the smile back on to the faces of Londoners.

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