Last week London’s tram service ceased to operate for 48 hours due its roughly 150 drivers going on strike. It was the second two-day stoppage organised by the drivers’ union Aslef, the first having taken place near the end of June. The dispute has been overshadowed, firstly by the much bigger national rail and London Underground strikes – involving a different union, the RMT – and then by national political dramas, but the industrial action, affecting public transport across much of south London, is significant both as a further symptom of the country’s so-called summer of discontent and for its own distinctive character.
The reason for the withdrawal of labour has been basic. “It is an absolutely straightforward pay dispute,” says Aslef’s seasoned London organiser Finn Brennan, with “no other issues involved”. The pay for the job is £45,678 a year – not bad compared with the London median of around £40,000, but the contract includes working a 24-hour shift pattern that operates all year except for Christmas Day. And the backdrop, of course, is the the UK’s soaring cost of living. The drivers have been offered a three per cent increase. Brennan reckons the management could and should do better.
Who are the management? It’s complicated. The capital’s tram system is owned by Transport for London, which bought it in 2008 from the Croydon Tramlink consortium that created it in the late 1990s and had run it since it opened in May 2000. The network was renamed as simply Tramlink by TfL – to the dismay of Croydon Council’s leader of the time – and later London Trams, though it is often still referred to as “the Croydon tram”.
The service is, however, operated not by TfL but by Tram Operations Ltd (TOL), a subsidiary of the Aberdeen-based multi-national FirstGroup, on a concession basis. It is TOL, rather than TfL, with whom Brennan and his Aslef colleagues have been negotiating without success so far, despite the involvement of conciliation service ACAS. Talks have reached an impasse and at this point the dispute seems set to continue after the August holiday period. “We expect to be announcing strike dates going into the autumn if no new offer is made,” Brennan says.
Brennan has been emphasising FirstGroup shelling out £500 million to shareholders and argues that as TOL’s money comes from TfL it should be doing better by its staff. Aslef secured a 3.2 per cent rise from November 2020 and TOL has pointed to a deal done 2018 which came into effect in November, describing it as “a change in terms equivalent to a five per cent-plus rise”, but Brennan isn’t having that.
“In the last pay round we negotiated a 35 hour week,” he says. “But because we realised that would be expensive for the company and take time to implement – they needed to recruit more drivers for example – we accepted that wouldn’t be introduced until the end of the three-year period, November 2021. Now they are rewarding our patience by saying, ‘actually you’ve already had this’.” Brennan also points out that that the employer’s ending of its final salary pension scheme, a factor behind more limited industrial action in spring 2019, has saved it money.
Another part of the the backdrop is, unsurprisingly, TfL’s troubled financial position, with a now semi-paralysed government still declining to agree a long-term funding deal. Although TOL is the employer, TfL effectively holds its purse strings and the contract between the two is, like public transport fares, linked to RPI inflation. It would not be a surprise if some of its finer points were not themselves subject to discussions.
On social media, Brennan has highlighted zest for the strike among the workforce, perhaps especially among the significant section of it which is young and newly-employed – an outcome of TOL’s need to increase the number of tram drivers as the 35-hour work has come into effect. A lot have come from “fairly casualised, non-unionised jobs before,” Brennan explains. “I know trade unionists always say this, but I’m very impressed by how enthusiastic and full of energy they are.” And few of the drivers have have forgotten the pandemic. Brennan sums up the sentiment: “We were heroes during the pandemic – now no one cares.”
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