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Why Tube saga could be the death rattle for unions as driverless vehicles emerge

by Harry Curtis

This summer London was plagued by strikes on its transport network. These could potentially carry on into the winter as union staff continue to bang their heads against the proverbial brick wall. But just as the equally controversial cab-hailing company Uber is planning driverless taxis, driverless vehicles could also have a future below ground too.

On the 8 and 9 July 2015 London went into meltdown with its largest walkout since 2002. 

A second strike on 5 and 6 August was a much calmer affair and strikes at the end of August and in September were suspended.

The strikers’ demands are a nonsense: Workers have been offered a two percent salary increase and a £500 bonus as compensation for covering the night Tube. To put this in context, pay increases for other public sector employees are capped at 1 percent a year. An Institute for Fiscal Studies report from March also reported that around 40 percent of private sector employees experienced a pay freeze or cut in 2014.

The strikes will become increasingly ineffective as the more they artificially distort the drivers’ salary, the closer we get to a complete roll out of driverless trains. It’s no longer economically viable or indeed necessary to have drivers in every cab and constant strikes are only speeding up this process. We’ve already seen this change with innovative routes like the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). The reason that technology even exists is that the bloated pay of train and Tube drivers has spurred on investment into other equipment. Last October, TfL unveiled the design for a fleet of 250 driverless Tube trains, with the aim of making them operational by the mid-2020s. A summer of strikes will have no doubt put greater impetus behind the project.

Of course drivers, by definition, will resist this change but by pushing up their wages beyond the value of their labour, the strikers are simply creating a rod for their own backs.

The all night service can’t come soon enough, it’s projected to employ 2,000 more people full time and add around £360 million to the economy. Beyond that, a city of London’s stature should not grind to a halt at midnight. The other complaint, the closure of ticket offices, is and always has been inevitable.

At the end of the day however, all arguments and comparisons around Tube drivers’, soldiers’ and nurses’ pay are secondary to one fact: drivers are able to command such a weighty pay packet because the withdrawal of their labour causes sheer panic on the streets of the capital. In this respect, you have to hold a certain amount of respect for them.

Don’t get me wrong, I find the strikes equally irritating, the inflated pay of the drivers equally appalling and I do believe the night tube is a vital step in London’s evolution. But it still has to be said: if us downing tools could cause so much havoc and add so much to our pay demands, then we’d probably consider it. It’s fundamentally just a warped expression of the free market where valuable workers, in terms of the disruption they can cause, can demand higher compensation from their employers. Of course the more they do it, the firmer the stance of London Underground and TfL will become.

The strikers are understandably angry, they’re being forced to take on a new system they don’t agree with but there’s a reason many described the strikes as the ‘death rattle’ of an outdated industry. The DLR proves that a driverless network is possible. The constant strikes and pay increases will only hasten the demise of the Tube driver.

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