Six reasons Londoners should probably stop whining about the tube strike

Here we go again: a crowded train, during a partial shutdown in 2009. Image: Getty.

Break out the bunting, hand out the paper hats and let joy be unconfined. For, tonight begins the latest installment of a festive tradition as old as London itself: the 24 hour tube strike.

At 6.30pm tonight, members of four trade unions – Aslef, RMT, TSSA and Unite – will walk out, in protest at the staffing of the new "Night tube" services being introduced next month. Spokespeople claim that the changes in pay and conditions on offer are inadequate to make up for the introduction of night shifts. This is the second such strike in a month.

Until Friday (mystifyingly, 24 hour strikes seem to extend into three days), Londoners are likely to react with their traditional stoicism. They’ll bear their mild inconvenience with a shrug, only occasionally turning to social media to suggest anyone on strike should be fired or, if you're a fan of Jeremy Clarkson, shot.

Whatever your views on the strike, though, here are six reasons you should think before Tweeting.

Your inconvenience is not a side effect

Yes, the tube staff do know that you're trying to get to work. Making it a pain in the arse is the entire point of the exercise.

By taking to the internet to register your displeasure, all you're doing is helping to highlight how much disruption the transport unions can bring about if they feel the need, and strengthening their hand in negotiations. If you really want to beat them, pretend it doesn't bother you. Tweet about what a lovely walk to work you're having, and how fragrant the man you found yourself crushed against on the number 73 bus this evening was.


If you claim to be left-wing, you should probably shut up

If you believe in the right to strike, right up until the point when it makes your life slightly more difficult, you don't believe in the right to strike at all. Either rethink your views on industrial relations or just sodding deal with it.

If you believe in free markets, you should probably shut up too

There's a strain of thinking on the right that says that pay, like prices, is set by the interaction of supply and demand, and that any attempt by the state to interfere in such matters is only going to make things worse. That applies in every case except public sector pay disputes, when suddenly the state knows exactly how much people's labour is worth, and everyone employed by it should just take what they're given and shut the hell up.

There is a very obvious logical inconsistency here: either pay is set by workers' ability to demand more money for their labour, or it isn't. If you truly believe in free markets, then whether or not it's the taxpayer who's picking up the tab is pretty much irrelevant. Throwing a tantrum and howling, "But I don't want them to have more money!" doesn't change the fact that tube staff have the power to bring one of the world's richest cities grinding to a halt, and that’s why their pay has risen faster than yours.

Don't like it? Become a tube driver.

"Tube driver" is a senior role

Actually, you can't, at least not instantly: since 2008, driving a tube train has effectively been a sort of senior post, somewhere junior staff work up to after years of training and toil in the ranks.

Whether this is the best way of managing the network's staff is perhaps open to question, but nonetheless, it makes it a nonsense to compare tube driver's £50k pay packet with the £22k starting salary of a nurse or the £18k one for a soldier. That £50k isn't a starting salary at all – it's a reward for seniority.


Driving the tube is bloody horrible

It's also a reward for the fact that it's a pretty miserable job. Not as miserable as being a soldier, admittedly – but certainly more miserable than being, say, a newspaper columnist.

Think about what driving a tube train actually involves. It's shift work, so sometimes you'll start at 5am and others you're working til gone midnight. Whatever time you start, you'll be spending approximately eight hours in a small box on your own, doing a series of mind numbingly repetitive tasks, but unable to lose concentration for even a moment.

In that time, you can't read a newspaper. You can't waste 20 minutes chatting with a colleague. You certainly can't tweet about how bored you are. On certain lines, you'll barely see daylight. And there's a not insignificant chance that, one day, someone will jump in front of your train, and you’ll have to live with the guilt.

Lord knows there are some terrible jobs out there that don't come with £50k pay packets, but... I'm kind of okay with paying people well to do that job. A lot of the people who'll be spending today whining, "Well I don't earn that much" also don't have jobs that are quite that shitty.

They're not the only ones on strike anyway

The last two points are a bit of a red herring, actually, because – it isn't only the tube drivers who are actually striking. Every grade of tube staff voted for industrial action. Their concern is that, by adding to the hours in which the tube is open without significantly increasing staff numbers – by introducing the Night Tube on the cheap – the existing staff will be over-stretched and passenger safety could end up compromised.

Today's strike isn't about that £50k pay packet at all.

All that said, it's about time the tube did offer all night services, and TfL would be negligent if it wasn't trying to make it happen as cost effectively as possible. I'm not saying that the unions are entirely in the right, and management entirely in the wrong on this one. I don't actually think I know.

But my point is – neither do you.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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