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.

 
 
 
 

High streets and shopping malls face a ‘domino effect’ from major store closures

Another one bites the dust: House of Fraser plans to close the majority of its stores. Image: Getty.

Traditional retail is in the centre of a storm – and British department store chain House of Fraser is the latest to succumb to the tempest. The company plans to close 31 of its 59 shops – including its flagship store in Oxford Street, London – by the beginning of 2019. The closures come as part of a company voluntary arrangement, which is an insolvency deal designed to keep the chain running while it renegotiates terms with landlords. The deal will be voted on by creditors within the month.

Meanwhile in the US, the world’s largest retail market, Sears has just announced that it will be closing more than 70 of its stores in the near future.

This trend of major retailers closing multiple outlets exists in several Western countries – and its magnitude seems to be unrelated to the fundamentals of the economy. The US, for example, has recently experienced a clear decoupling of store closures from overall economic growth. While the US economy grew a healthy 2.3 per cent in 2017, the year ended with a record number of store closings, nearly 9,000 while 50 major chains filed for bankruptcy.

Most analysts and industry experts agree that this is largely due to the growth of e-commerce – and this is not expected to diminish anytime soon. A further 12,000 stores are expected to close in the US before the end of 2018. Similar trends are being seen in markets such as the UK and Canada.

Pushing down profits

Perhaps the most obvious impact of store closures is on the revenues and profitability of established brick-and-mortar retailers, with bankruptcies in the US up by nearly a third in 2017. The cost to investors in the retail sector has been severe – stocks of firms such as Sears have lost upwards of 90 per cent of their market value in the last ten years. By contrast, Amazon’s stock price is up over 2,000 per cent in the same period – more than 49,000 per cent when considering the last 20 years. This is a trend that the market does not expect to change, as the ratio of price to earnings for Amazon stands at ten times that of the best brick-and-mortar retailers.

Although unemployment levels reached a 17-year low in 2017, the retail sector in the US shed a net 66,500 jobs. Landlords are losing longstanding tenants. The expectation is that roughly 25 per cent of shopping malls in the US are at high risk of closing one of their anchor tenants such as a Macy’s, which could set off a series of store closures and challenge the very viability of the mall. One out of every five malls is expected to close by 2022 – a prospect which has put downward pressure on retail real estate prices and on the finances of the firms that own and manage these venues.

In the UK, high streets are struggling through similar issues. And given that high streets have historically been the heart of any UK town or city, there appears to be a fundamental need for businesses and local councils to adapt to the radical changes affecting the retail sector to preserve their high streets’ vitality and financial viability.


The costs to society

While attention is focused on the direct impacts on company finances, employment and landlord rents, store closures can set off a “domino effect” on local governments and businesses, which come at a significant cost to society. For instance, closures can have a knock-on effect for nearby businesses – when large stores close, the foot traffic to neighbouring establishments is also reduced, which endangers the viability of other local businesses. For instance, Starbucks has recently announced plans to close all its 379 Teavana stores. Primarily located inside shopping malls, they have harshly suffered from declining mall traffic in recent years.

Store closures can also spell trouble for local authorities. When retailers and neighbouring businesses close, they reduce the taxable revenue base that many municipalities depend on in order to fund local services. Add to this the reduction in property taxes stemming from bankrupt landlords and the effect on municipal funding can be substantial. Unfortunately, until e-commerce tax laws are adapted, municipalities will continue to face financial challenges as more and more stores close.

It’s not just local councils, but local development which suffers when stores close. For decades, many cities in the US and the UK, for exmaple Detroit and Liverpool, have heavily invested in efforts to rejuvenate their urban cores after years of decay in the 1970s and 1980s. Bringing shops, bars and other businesses back to once derelict areas has been key to this redevelopment. But today, with businesses closing, cities could once again face the prospect of seeing their efforts unravel as their key urban areas become less attractive and populations move elsewhere.

Commercial ecosystems featuring everything from large chain stores to small independent businesses are fragile and sensitive to change. When a store closes it doesn’t just affect employees or shareholders – it can have widespread and lasting impacts on the local community, and beyond. Controlling this “domino effect” is going to be a major challenge for local governments and businesses for years to come.

Omar Toulan, Professor in Strategy and International Management, IMD Business School and Niccolò Pisani, Assistant Professor of International Management, University of Amsterdam.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.