You know, I sometimes think that trade unions get a raw deal in this country. Reports of industrial action almost always frame it as a matter of workers’ selfishness and public disruption, rather than one of defending vital labour rights; and when London’s tube grinds to a halt, few people will find out what the dispute is actually about before declaring that the drivers should all be replaced by robots at the earliest possible opportunity or, possibly, shot.
We should be a bit more sympathetic towards trade unions, is what I’m saying here: a bit more understanding about the role they played in improving working life for all of us, and the fact that defending their members’ interests is literally their job.
Anyway, all that said, the RMT seems to have gone completely fucking doolally.
TAXI UNION RMT says that the closure of the pivotal Bank Junction to all vehicles (other than buses and bicycles) exposes Transport for London’s (TfL) symptom-focused decision-making and unwillingness to tackle the cause of the problem.
So begins a press release the union put out on Thursday. It’s referring to a plan to place new restrictions on who can pass one of the City of London’s dirtiest and most dangerous junctions, by banning private vehicles from using it.
The junction in question: busy day. Image: Google.
If at first glance the RMT’s words seem reasonable enough, then consider two pieces of information not included in that paragraph:
1) It’s not a TfL scheme, but a City of London Corporation one (essentially, the local council); and
2) The reason for the press release is that, at 5pm on Thursday, hundreds of black cab drivers descended on Bank Junction to create gridlock, in their time-honoured way of whining about something. Blocking major roads for several hours at a time has always struck me as an odd way of trying to win friends and influence people, if I’m frank, but let’s get back to the press release, the next line of which drops a strong hint that something else is going on here:
TfL’s gutlessness in failing to stand-up to multi-national venture capital-backed raiders such as Uber, has left our streets flooded with minicabs.
That suggests that this is another barrage in the black cabs’ ongoing war against competition from Uber. This conflict is odd in its way – it’s not as if there weren’t minicabs offering a low cost alternative to the classic London taxi before Uber came along, but we’ve not had a lengthy PR war against, say, Gants Hill Cars – but it’s at least familiar territory, so it’d be easy, at this point, to assume we know where we are.
Except then it gets really weird.
With buses stuck in gridlock behind haphazardly driven Uber cars – and with the Tube dangerously overcrowded during peak hours – people are turning out of desperation to commuting by bicycle.
Despite its impracticality, there has been an explosion in the number of people commuting by bike. Astonishingly, 30% of road traffic traversing Bank Junction are now cyclists.
Soooo... the only reason anyone might want to cycle is because public transport is now bad because of Uber? Not because it’s fun or healthy or just nicer than being stuck in a metal box for 45 minutes – because of badly driven Ubers something something?
Other things the cabbies will blame Uber for in upcoming press releases: climate change, Brexit, the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870, the fact they couldn’t get tickets for Hamilton.
It is time that TfL refused to licence Uber, which it acknowledges is unlawfully “plying for hire”.
Okay, maybe, we can talk about that.
It is time that black cabs were recognised and supported as a mode of public transport.
It is time that cuts to the Tube were reversed.
I mean, sure, we can talk about that too, but... can you go back to that last bit, please?
RMT General Secretary, Mick Cash, said:
“RMT agrees with proposals which improve public safety, but it is clear that the driving factor behind the decision is to improve bus journey times under a buckling road network.
“Black cabs are an integral part of the public transport system and as the data shows, one of the safest.”
This is all so very mixed up, it’s hard to know where to begin. Black cabs are not public transport – as lovely as they are, they’re simply too expensive. Even in New York City, where the cabs are much, much cheaper, it’d be silly to class them as public transport. In London, where they’re so over-priced they’re basically the preserve of the rich and those who’ve had enough to drink to mistakenly consider themselves such, it’s just nonsense.
Also – if this decision has been taken for the sake of improving bus journey times, then what’s wrong with that? I haven’t run the numbers, but I’d be amazed if that wasn’t a bigger gain to the city than “improving life for the people who take cabs”. Because – as I may have mentioned – black cabs are not public transport.
Anyway, to sum the RMT’s position up: we should invest in the tube but not the buses, expensive black cabs are public transport but cheaper Ubers are the work of the devil, and the only reason anyone would ever go by bike is because they’ve been left with no choice by all those people in the wrong sort of taxi screwing everything up. Oh, and causing gridlock at peak time is a good way to win friends.
Everyone got that straight?
None of this is to say Uber is perfect – there are many things about it that are terrible, including both the way people have mistaken it for a revolutionary new form of capitalism (as opposed to, say, a minicab firm with an app), and its attitude to workers (ironically, what they could really do with is a union). The way TfL is acting towards the firm is no doubt imperfect too.
But the RMT’s attitude in this press release is just baffling. Of course it has to defends its members interests – taxi drivers just as much as tube drivers. And of course it has to be seen to be doing so, so as to attract new members.
But should it really be trying to do both in the same press release? Because the result is a statement which demands TfL do more for cab drivers, slams it for doing anything for bus users, and casually insults anyone on two wheels in the process.
A union’s job is to look after its members. I’m not sure nonsense like this will achieve anything of the sort.
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.