Far-reaching proposals for the introduction of driverless trains and fully automated ticketing on London Underground raise the prospect of the kind of dispute with the rail unions not seen since the Thatcher years.
2012 is the 30th anniversary of the infamous flexible rostering dispute which paralysed the entire rail network in the first half of 1982 and became an early trial strength between the trade union movement and the government of Margaret Thatcher.
Although the then rail unions, ASLEF and the NUR, were determined to defend their fixed eight-hour day – guaranteed since 1908 – their industrial muscle proved no match in the face of a well-orchestrated media and propaganda offensive.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, is promising a fight to the finish if Transport for London tries to introduce fully-automated trains staffed by an attendant instead of a driver and the payment of fares by bank cards which would result in the mass closure of London Underground ticket offices.
But Crow, like his union predecessors – Ray Buckton and Sid Weighell – will be up against a concerted campaign by the management and the media. The train drivers of the 1980s were castigated for refusing give up their fixed eight-hour day and work flexible shifts; their successors are likely to be subjected to the same level of denigration if they seek to thwart future upgrades of the London Underground.
British Rail – like Transport for London today – was desperate in the 1980s to modernise its working practices in order to secure government approval for new investment. But such was the intensity of the drivers’ determination to retain a fixed eight-hour day that the management felt it had no alternative but to embark on a make-or-break confrontation with the rail unions.
The Thatcher government encouraged the nationalised industries to go over the heads of union leaders and managements developed new techniques to communicate directly with their employees. Radio and television studios became an extension of the traditional front line and the union leaders found themselves increasingly at a disadvantage.
The timing of any future confrontation between Transport for London and the RMT will be all important. No sensible management would wish to embark on major industrial re-organisation until after the Olympic Games next year.
Similarly much will depend on whether Boris Johnson is re-elected Mayor of London in 2012 and secures a mandate to push ahead with modernisation. But given the mood music from the government and the emphasis placed by coalition ministers on the need for more flexible employment procedures, the appetite does seem to be there for a battle royal with the RMT.
Bob Crow has proved a wily negotiator and is an adept media performer but the lesson of the industrial disputes of the 1980s is that unions need more than their traditional strength and stamina if they are to withstand the remorseless pressure for the introduction of new working practices.