Tube strikes and a culture of mean

This #tubestrike just makes me hope the ticket offices are closed. Machines dont strike. #NoMoreSympathy

TFL workers striking because people are losing jobs to ticket machines, but ticket machines will never go on strike.

TBH I never use the ticket office, the machines are just more convenient. #tubestrike

Strikes are meant to inconvenience people, to cause disruption to the running of things. So it’s not surprising that lots of Londoners last week had crappy journeys to work and back, and lots of Londoners feel angry with members of the TSSA and RMT unions for causing all this hassle by going on strike. But there’s a streak of meanness in these messages that goes beyond simple exasperation. And that meanness is shared by the people trying to force through Tube cutbacks (the subject of the dispute that led to the strike). I’d go as far as saying that there’s a whole culture of mean at work here.

The culture of mean says: there isn’t enough, so you shouldn’t ask for more.

Transport for London is facing a cut in its budget of £78 million. A government spending review in June 2013 ended with a decision to reduce the money available, eventually by a quarter. Why? Is the population of London set to reduce by a quarter? Are the people of London going to start travelling less? Is transport in London simply so quick, cheap and easy that nobody thinks any improvements need to be made? Of course not. TfL is simply having to take its share of the government’s ideologically-driven spending cuts. But the culture of mean says you don’t ask for more, you just pass the misery onwards. Boris Johnson claimed to have done battle with the Treasury mandarins and gained an “unprecedented” settlement, but this still represents a fall in the money available for TfL. I wonder if he really asked for more. I wonder if he really argued against the cuts.

The culture of mean says: people who ask for more are stealing from you, because there isn’t enough to go round.

The idea that others are taking more than their fair share is a powerful narrative, because it goes to the heart of human fears. We want to get our fair share on principle – and if it seems that there won’t be enough to go round, getting our fair share is a matter of survival. That fear is behind the narrative that the Tube strike involves “greedy Tube drivers” who “want more money”. How dare they go on strike when doctors and nurses get less? How dare they ask for “extra pay”? How dare Bob Crow live in a council house when there aren’t enough to go round?

For the record: the Tube strike is not about getting “extra pay” for anybody. It’s about fighting a plan to make hundreds of people redundant, cut the pay of the remaining workers by about 20% and close all the ticket offices. But the narrative of greedy strikers “asking for more” is very strong. And the culture of mean says you should never ask for more. If you’re a nurse who feels it’s unfair that you get paid less than a Tube driver, you should deal with that by hoping that Tube drivers end up with less. Remember: don’t ask for more, just pass the misery onwards.

The culture of mean says: things that I don’t use are no use.

Many Tube commuters have pointed out that the closure of ticket offices won’t affect them at all, because they personally never use them. Yes, lots of Londoners have turned Tube travelling into an art form. They’ve got their Oyster card in hand, they’ve memorised the bits of the Tube map they need and they’ve long ago worked out the ideal place to stand on the platform. But this level of Tube-competence doesn’t stop other people existing. Confused tourists, elderly out-of-towners, people with learning difficulties. Those people need help from a human. When you argue that ticket offices can be replaced with machines, you’re arguing that those people don’t matter.

OK, so let’s assume those people actually don’t matter and it’s fine for a Tube journey to be some kind of survival-of-the-fittest contest that’s hell for anyone who isn’t able-bodied and sharp-witted. We’ll leave those people to flounder…where? Well, actually, they’ll probably be in front of you in the ticket machine queue, maybe trying to voice-activate it or feeding drachma into the coin slot. That’s when it becomes clear that the ticket office is, paradoxically, a big time-saver for people who don’t need to use the ticket office.

It’s the same thing with the station supervisors: you’ve probably never used them, right? Well, I’ve never been in the operating theatre of a hospital, but that doesn’t mean I think we should close all operating theatres. TfL’s plan is to do away with the idea of having a supervisor for each station, and instead have one member of staff covering several stations. This means that if there’s an emergency at any given station, there’s a good chance there will be nobody officially in charge. The culture of mean says that’s OK, because putting extra resources in place to cover contingencies is a waste. Let’s just strip back everything, set ourselves up for disaster and then, when the disaster happens, we’ll say that “lessons have been learnt”.

The culture of mean is about taking away the things that feel like extras but actually aren’t. And unless we are very careful, we will buy into the mean mindset and let others set the terms of the debate.

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