How Boris can beat the RMT

The RMT has once again brought London to a standstill with a 48-hour strike. This is a good example of public choice theory at work, in particular Mancur Olson’s logic of collective action. A small concentrated interest (i.e. the tube drivers) is able to exploit the dispersed population of travellers and taxpayers, who have weak incentives to organise in opposition. 

As a result of their rent-seeking activity tube drivers get paid far more than employees in comparable occupations – around £40,000 per year, almost double the wage of a typical London bus driver. The Underground is also heavily overstaffed, which is one reason why the system requires hefty ongoing subsidies.

Given the incentives at work, the task of tackling the problem of inflated salaries, ineffiency and industrial unrest lies with politicians and London Mayor Boris Johnson in particular.

He can take inspiration from Margaret Thatcher and her battle with the NUM. She prepared for the miners’ strike several years in advance and Boris should take a similar strategic approach.

The first step should be to make London more resilient to strike action on the Tube. This means deregulating the buses to allow new market entrants to boost capacity at peak times. It also involves abandoning anti-car socialism with its unnecessary traffic controls, to ensure the road network is utilised to its full potential.

Liberalising the taxi market – for example by ending licensing and allowing shared taxis and minicabs to pick up passengers at the roadside – would further strengthen the Mayor’s hand, even if it means taking on another powerful rent-seeking interest, the black-cab drivers.

More radically, privatising the Underground could be a particularly effective measure, enabling the network to be broken up and sold off to different companies running different lines. Negotations over pay and conditions would then be decentralised. Perhaps most importantly, firms would be free to recruit low-cost non-unionised labour from overseas to replace strikers – for example, train drivers from central and eastern Europe.

Poorly used outer sections of the Tube system could also be closed down – perhaps converted into connecting busways or even toll roads if it proved profitable. This could make better use of existing resources, while further weakening the stranglehold of the RMT.

Is it true that it’s now illegal to dismiss a worker for going on strike? If so, abolishing that piece of legislation should be the first step. Reagan dismissed air-traffic controllers en masse for going on strike, so there’s no reason why the same shouldn’t happen to Tube drivers. Congestion charges and bus lanes should be abolished on strike days, and any bus operator in the country authorized to operate in London on those days. To assist, a database of route plans could be made available for download to sat-navs to help drivers operating on unfamiliar routes.

Steve – I believe that striking workers can be dismissed but it is a very time consuming process, perhaps taking around 3 months. Nevertheless it would probably be worthwhile to deal with the RMT problem once and for all. Regarding the bus lanes, many of those a waste of valuable road space full stop. Perhaps they could be permanently converted into toll lanes, accessible to all vehicles upon payment.

“More radically, privatising the Underground could be a particularly effective measure, enabling the network to be broken up and sold off to different companies running different lines.” – I agree with pretty much everything else you suggest except this. Happened in Melbourne, Australia and it didn’t work. The Serco franchise for the DLR seems to work well, perhap some lessons could be learnt from that model. What they also need to do is deregulate/privatise on-street parking, so that people have more parking options and “parking products” available to them ie being able to park on-street all day in the inner city if they are prepared to pay the price rather than just 4 hours etc.

It’s surely a bit of an exaggeration to say that the RMT strike has ‘brought London to a standstill’. 57,000 people somehow managed to get to Wembley for the soccer international last night. Buses are still running (more than usual, I believe). So are bicycles (ditto). And more people are walking than usual too. Some underground lines are still running (the Northern Line and the Jubilee Line, and the central part of the Victoria Line, for example.) And taxis and cars have not been brought to a halt. I’m all for making the capital city less vulnerable to a strike, but it’s not completely at the RMT’s mercy as things are.

It may be time to return to legal changes. These could involve requiring a majority of the eligible membership to vote in favour of a strike (only a third voted at all on this strike), or making tube strikes illegal in return for a wage-setting mechanism. Such moderate reforms might give Gordon Brown a bigger boost than footling changes to parliamentary elections. More radical measures to alter the whole basis of trade union immunity might be desirable, though not immediately on the agenda. What we can’t do is go into the Olympic year, or even the bid for the World Cup, with the major means of moving people around the capital in the hands of a small minority with Bob Crow’s political agenda.

The cab-share system they organized at Paddington today worked really well (at least for me). Jumped straight to the front of the queue and shared with four others going to the same area. Cheaper than going on my own and not much more expensive (at £6.50) than taking the Tube. Good for energy-efficiency and carbon-emissions too (if that’s your thing). Presumably, good business for the cab drivers. The cab driver back to the station reckoned the traffic was quite bad yesterday, but was pretty thin today, as was demand. I guess people adjusted quite quickly to constrained supply. So I agree with David that it wasn’t that bad, but you are still right that Boris ought to be planning for worse.

In hindsight I accept DRM’s point that using the word ’standstill’ may have exaggerated the severity of the impact. For starters, a high proportion of journeys in outer London are by car. It will be interesting to see whether any data become available on the number of workers who stayed at home to avoid the disruption. The 100 or so extra buses laid on were perhaps largely a publicity stunt, as they are a drop in the ocean when a single tube line can carry 15,000 passengers per hour in each direction. As Bruno suggests, people have indeed adjusted quickly to constrained supply. This suggests a prolonged confrontation might well be more tolerable than the politicians think.

David is too upbeat. I was in Oxford Street yesterday and it was like a ghost town – nobody in the shops and few people on the street. Really problematic for businesses. And although Londoners know how to get around in a strike, hundreds of thousands of potential visitors for the Olympics etc can’t just make do and mend as we do, or work at home instead. London’s transport system is well-nigh incomprehensible at the best of times: how a Chinese or Japanese visitor could have worked out how to get around town yesterday heaven only knows. Something needs to be done to prevent this type of hassle recurring.

Considering the present level of unemployment and the average salary of a tube driver there would surely be thousands of willing replacements if the strikers were sacked. I think it would be worth the short-term pain to bring about a long-term solution of the RMT/strike problem.

Reagan was able to fire the controllers because there was a seemingly adequate substitute; military controllers and a lot of ATC supervisors.And the ATC through their union PATCO totally misplayed their hand. The Reagan administration did offer decent raises and higher benefits and the ATC rejected them.But Reagan had several other advantages. Federal workers could not legally strike. This had been ignored before. And PATCO itself had agreed not to strike. Then they did anyway. The resulting disruption in service was bearable although quite predictably some found it just utterly horrible.

In the summer of 1981, early in the first term of President Ronald Reagan, the air-controllers declared a strike. As civil servants they were under the Office of Personel Management to head which Reagan appointed Dr. Donald Devine, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Joe Morris, a Chicago lawyer, was appointed OPM counsel and Dr. Roger Pilon, a legal scholar, was their assistant.Reagan was advised by White House staff to concede the demands of the union rather than face a difficult strike. Reagan refused and fired the air-controllers for refusing to fulfill their contracts. Though it was difficult, other air-controllers were hired or trained, and air travel continued.

K has a point that there were military controllers and supervisors available when President Reagan fired the air controllers but saying “Reagan was able to fire the controllers because there was a seemingly adequate substitute” implies that Reagan’s decision was calculated on this assumption. It was not. He considered it a matter of principle. In fact, as Leonard suggests, Reagan’s experts did tell him there were not adequate replacements and that air travel would be disrupted in a major way for a substantial period of time. Leonard is correct that air travel continued but was “difficult.” It took years to re-staff but the controllers who did not strike and their replacements proved Richard’s main point that there was too much redundancy that very much deserved to be confronted by a decisive executive action. We were fortunate to have the right president—and a bit of luck.

Donald: I have no doubt Reagan acted on principle. And he was not afraid of acting when the outcome was uncertain. I could equally well have written it this way: “Reagan might have fired them even if it would have completely grounded US aviation. The backup plan was ready but no one could be sure it would work.”No doubt Reagan heard experts who said “yea” and others who said “nay.” But not one knew. This had not happened before.We know that the backup plan had been reviewed; Reagan was not uninformed.

Is it true that it’s now illegal to dismiss a worker for going on strike? If so, abolishing that piece of legislation should be the first step. Reagan dismissed air-traffic controllers en masse for going on strike, so there’s no reason why the same shouldn’t happen to Tube drivers. Congestion charges and bus lanes should be abolished on strike days, and any bus operator in the country authorized to operate in London on those days. To assist, a database of route plans could be made available for download to sat-navs to help drivers operating on unfamiliar routes.

Steve – I believe that striking workers can be dismissed but it is a very time consuming process, perhaps taking around 3 months. Nevertheless it would probably be worthwhile to deal with the RMT problem once and for all. Regarding the bus lanes, many of those a waste of valuable road space full stop. Perhaps they could be permanently converted into toll lanes, accessible to all vehicles upon payment.

“More radically, privatising the Underground could be a particularly effective measure, enabling the network to be broken up and sold off to different companies running different lines.” – I agree with pretty much everything else you suggest except this. Happened in Melbourne, Australia and it didn’t work. The Serco franchise for the DLR seems to work well, perhap some lessons could be learnt from that model. What they also need to do is deregulate/privatise on-street parking, so that people have more parking options and “parking products” available to them ie being able to park on-street all day in the inner city if they are prepared to pay the price rather than just 4 hours etc.

It’s surely a bit of an exaggeration to say that the RMT strike has ‘brought London to a standstill’. 57,000 people somehow managed to get to Wembley for the soccer international last night. Buses are still running (more than usual, I believe). So are bicycles (ditto). And more people are walking than usual too. Some underground lines are still running (the Northern Line and the Jubilee Line, and the central part of the Victoria Line, for example.) And taxis and cars have not been brought to a halt. I’m all for making the capital city less vulnerable to a strike, but it’s not completely at the RMT’s mercy as things are.

It may be time to return to legal changes. These could involve requiring a majority of the eligible membership to vote in favour of a strike (only a third voted at all on this strike), or making tube strikes illegal in return for a wage-setting mechanism. Such moderate reforms might give Gordon Brown a bigger boost than footling changes to parliamentary elections. More radical measures to alter the whole basis of trade union immunity might be desirable, though not immediately on the agenda. What we can’t do is go into the Olympic year, or even the bid for the World Cup, with the major means of moving people around the capital in the hands of a small minority with Bob Crow’s political agenda.

The cab-share system they organized at Paddington today worked really well (at least for me). Jumped straight to the front of the queue and shared with four others going to the same area. Cheaper than going on my own and not much more expensive (at £6.50) than taking the Tube. Good for energy-efficiency and carbon-emissions too (if that’s your thing). Presumably, good business for the cab drivers. The cab driver back to the station reckoned the traffic was quite bad yesterday, but was pretty thin today, as was demand. I guess people adjusted quite quickly to constrained supply. So I agree with David that it wasn’t that bad, but you are still right that Boris ought to be planning for worse.

In hindsight I accept DRM’s point that using the word ’standstill’ may have exaggerated the severity of the impact. For starters, a high proportion of journeys in outer London are by car. It will be interesting to see whether any data become available on the number of workers who stayed at home to avoid the disruption. The 100 or so extra buses laid on were perhaps largely a publicity stunt, as they are a drop in the ocean when a single tube line can carry 15,000 passengers per hour in each direction. As Bruno suggests, people have indeed adjusted quickly to constrained supply. This suggests a prolonged confrontation might well be more tolerable than the politicians think.

David is too upbeat. I was in Oxford Street yesterday and it was like a ghost town – nobody in the shops and few people on the street. Really problematic for businesses. And although Londoners know how to get around in a strike, hundreds of thousands of potential visitors for the Olympics etc can’t just make do and mend as we do, or work at home instead. London’s transport system is well-nigh incomprehensible at the best of times: how a Chinese or Japanese visitor could have worked out how to get around town yesterday heaven only knows. Something needs to be done to prevent this type of hassle recurring.

Considering the present level of unemployment and the average salary of a tube driver there would surely be thousands of willing replacements if the strikers were sacked. I think it would be worth the short-term pain to bring about a long-term solution of the RMT/strike problem.

Reagan was able to fire the controllers because there was a seemingly adequate substitute; military controllers and a lot of ATC supervisors.And the ATC through their union PATCO totally misplayed their hand. The Reagan administration did offer decent raises and higher benefits and the ATC rejected them.But Reagan had several other advantages. Federal workers could not legally strike. This had been ignored before. And PATCO itself had agreed not to strike. Then they did anyway. The resulting disruption in service was bearable although quite predictably some found it just utterly horrible.

In the summer of 1981, early in the first term of President Ronald Reagan, the air-controllers declared a strike. As civil servants they were under the Office of Personel Management to head which Reagan appointed Dr. Donald Devine, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Joe Morris, a Chicago lawyer, was appointed OPM counsel and Dr. Roger Pilon, a legal scholar, was their assistant.Reagan was advised by White House staff to concede the demands of the union rather than face a difficult strike. Reagan refused and fired the air-controllers for refusing to fulfill their contracts. Though it was difficult, other air-controllers were hired or trained, and air travel continued.

K has a point that there were military controllers and supervisors available when President Reagan fired the air controllers but saying “Reagan was able to fire the controllers because there was a seemingly adequate substitute” implies that Reagan’s decision was calculated on this assumption. It was not. He considered it a matter of principle. In fact, as Leonard suggests, Reagan’s experts did tell him there were not adequate replacements and that air travel would be disrupted in a major way for a substantial period of time. Leonard is correct that air travel continued but was “difficult.” It took years to re-staff but the controllers who did not strike and their replacements proved Richard’s main point that there was too much redundancy that very much deserved to be confronted by a decisive executive action. We were fortunate to have the right president—and a bit of luck.

Donald: I have no doubt Reagan acted on principle. And he was not afraid of acting when the outcome was uncertain. I could equally well have written it this way: “Reagan might have fired them even if it would have completely grounded US aviation. The backup plan was ready but no one could be sure it would work.”No doubt Reagan heard experts who said “yea” and others who said “nay.” But not one knew. This had not happened before.We know that the backup plan had been reviewed; Reagan was not uninformed.

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