Strikes: Harsh words as battlelines are drawn (Updated 02.02.11)

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Victoriastrike.jpgThe New Statesman has done the sums and proven that there have been more strikes under Boris Johnson's rule than that of his predecessor*.

But far from working with the Unions to find a common ground and move beyond the debilitating series of strikes which typified 2010 and look to continue well into 2011, both sides are currently engaged in a war of words and threats which are likely to harden positions in both camps.

Both sides are guilty of this behaviour, although perhaps Aslef's suggestion that they may strike over the April 29 bank holiday prompted the current round of name-calling and escalation which followed. It's worth nothing however, that Aslef only suggested striking on that date, they didn't ballot or commit to do so. Indeed, in the face of public outcry, they stepped back from the idea.

Such trivialities didn't stop the Mayor wading into the debate however, declaring himself appalled at the very notion. Following Aslef's retraction, the Mayor has invited Keith Norman, Aslef's General Secretary, to talks to resolve the issues surrounding bank holiday working. This is welcome and positive step by a Mayor who has previous maintained a distance from any negotiations with the Unions.

That said, Bob Crow of the RMT was not extended the same courtesy. Tom Edwards at Mind the Gap posits as to why (below and here). I think he's spot on:

"Is the Mayor trying to isolate the RMT Union? ...Let's see what ASLEF do. Difficult decision for them? What will happen to union solidarity now?"

Meanwhile, the Mayor continues to pile on the pressure in such a fashion that it can only be planned.

A joint letter with the PM condemns any possible strikes on the 12th, while the PM on the same day announces that he's prepared to look at curbing union powers. Two days later the Mayor slips in his London Government Dinner speech a titbit on moving to automated trains on the Tube** should the current strife continue:

"...thanks to the advanced signalling being installed it is also a fact that anyone in this room could in a matter of a few weeks acquire the qualifications necessary to supervise an underground train and the huge potential implications of that change will be obvious to everyone."

All of which is not at all inflammatory and will, no doubt, help foster a quick and satisfactory solution for the millions of people who use the Tube every day.

The ball is firmly in Aslef's court.

And while all this goes on, wither the opposition?

Ken Livingstone has continually refused to condemn strike action (although he has urged both sides to 'get around the table') and, unsurprisingly, his old nemesis Andrew Gilligan continues to dig out links between him and the Unions. That said, Ed Miliband is "appalled" by the idea of strikes on the Royal's big day and Ken has called for free travel for people in London during festivities. Putting 2 + 2 together, surely that means he doesn't support strikes on the same day?

Of course, there's an election on, a fact which Boris, Ken, the Unions, and the PM are all taking into account before opening their mouths.

The Mayor has tried stepping back and allowing TfL to negotiate on his behalf to no avail. Now, active engagement, dividing and conquering, and very public industrial negotiations seem to be the strategy...

UPDATE 21.01.11: Well, this was predictable. Aslef have turned down face-to-face talks with the Mayor. Surely unless he offers similar talks to the RMT, the Mayor is now in a far weakened position?

UPDATE 02.02.11: Just to inflame the situation a little more, it has been announced that the new ticket office opening hours are to come into effect from Sunday. Dave Hill disects here.


* a fact which highlights that his infamous 'no strike deal' was nothing more than an empty promise in his manifesto.

** a speech which has caused quite a bit of back-and-forth in its own right, with Christian Wolmar calling the idea "nonsense", Mind the Gap "misleading", whilst cheerleader-in-chief Gilligan defends it to the hilt.