As Tube strikes cause transport chaos, should such union action be restricted?

“The most conservative man in the world is the British trade unionist when you want to change him.” The words of an ardent capitalist? No, it was Ernest Bevin, founding member of the Transport and General Workers Union. This week’s Tube strikes by the RMT show this resistance to change lives on. Businesses that don’t adapt to developments in technology and customer need will wither and die, and the London Underground is not immune. If a better and more cost-effective service can be delivered by unshackling staff from their ticket booths, then modernisation should not be resisted by union leadership. Industrial action on this vital part of our national infrastructure cannot be allowed to drag on. Now is the time to reform the law so that a majority of balloted union members must vote in favour of a strike. Ballot papers should also specify the number of strike days, with unions forced to hold a further vote if they want to take the workforce out on strike again. Simon Walker is director general of the Institute of Directors.
Tube strikes are inconvenient, aggravating, and cost Londoners millions of pounds. But specific government intervention into the employment contracts of Tube workers is not the solution. The ability to go on strike in Britain is already limited. Laws intervening in contracts further are likely to go awry by preventing the market from discovering the best employment arrangements – the optimal number of strikes may not be zero. And intervention in the contracts of a particular firm or sector, like London transport workers, is open to the worst kinds of abuse by politicians with an axe to grind or a donor to satisfy. The state should be neutral in trade disputes, neither protecting unions nor curbing them. In an ideal world, of course, the taxpayer would not subsidise the Underground. Perhaps Transport for London should ultimately automate the whole Tube – but that is for TfL’s managers and the GLA to decide. Sam Bowman is research director at the Adam Smith Institute.

Simon Walker

Simon Walker is director general of the Institute of Directors.

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