Sick of the strikes? Job-threatening technology could lead to even more industrial disputes

Julian Harris
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Beleaguered Southern Rail Users Face More Misery As Five Day Strike Begins
On Monday, Southern railway staff began a five-day strike (Source: Getty)

The strike bringing misery to thousands of commuters on Southern’s railway line may be merely the start of a wider trend of industrial action throughout the UK.

The RMT union has got its tail up and yesterday declared that workers on the Virgin east coast mainline have voted in favour of walkouts, while passenger groups are expecting a nightmarish September, with a long line of disputes coming to the fore.

The Southern and Virgin cases are similar in that, prima facie, it’s not entirely obvious what has caused the fallouts. Workers on Southern’s services insist their dispute is about “safety” while the RMT has cited “propaganda messages” from Virgin to its staff, and threats to “job security”, to justify action on the east coast line. Virgin and Southern have both insisted there will be no compulsory job losses, but the RMT said yesterday that its members who work for Virgin have been treated with “pure contempt”.

Read more: Business groups slam RMT's strike on Southern Rail

So what’s going on?

At the heart of both disagreements, whether or not the companies or unions choose to admit it, is the issue of technological change. Southern no longer requires guards to be in control of the doors, while Virgin is altering its systems due to the incoming arrival of a new fleet of trains. This is hardly the stuff of imaginative futurology or science fiction, but is a timely and prosaic example of what happens when technology so much as threatens the role of traditional jobs.

Read more: Southern discomfort: Train service's punctuality plunges to 70 per cent

In the coming years we can expect to see this standoff intensify, as more glamorous technologies reshape the workforce. It is nothing that we haven’t observed before – technology slashed the number of people working in farming and factories over the last couple of centuries, for example, and in each case those jobs have been replaced with more pleasant and generally higher-paid alternatives, while technological efficiencies have slashed the cost of core goods and services, hugely benefiting people on modest or low incomes.

But try telling that to a worker threatened with redundancy. Industrial disputes will become a regular fixture, and Theresa May, who successfully emulated Margaret Thatcher during her debut at Prime Minister’s Questions, could find herself clashing with the unions in a similar manner to her Conservative predecessor.

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