by Joe Ventre, digital campaign manager
London is still reeling after a week of tube disruption. In scenes all too familiar for those who live and work in the capital, tube workers went on strike; leaving the millions of people who use the service every day in the lurch. This came as the result of coordinated strike action from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), which saw 10,000 union workers stage a walk-out in a concerted effort to grind the underground rail service to a halt.
So what exactly was the RMT’s gripe this time? As a condition of the continuous bailout agreements reached between Transport for London (TfL) and central government throughout the pandemic (to the tune of now almost £5 billion of taxpayers’ money), the transport body is required to demonstrate that it is able to make savings; including cutting a number of station posts (not jobs) and reviewing its infamously generous pension scheme.
It’s easy to forget amongst the furore just how sweet a deal TfL’s tube drivers currently have. A full-time driver can expect a salary upwards of £56,000, and a host of perks that would be unimaginable to most private sector workers - including free tube travel for the driver and a significant other, 43 days of annual leave entitlement a year, and very comfortable retirement at 60. It’s almost no wonder that the unions are willing to take such drastic action to preserve their current setup.
A fact that is bound to stick in the craw of anyone who was affected by the disruption is that they may have unknowingly paid towards the union’s efforts. In a practice mirrored by public sector bodies across the country, TfL allows for “trade union facility time”, whereby employees are granted time within their working hours to undertake trade union duties. In TfL alone, 880 members of staff held roles as union representatives in 2020-21, costing £6.4 million. That may be a fraction of the over £2 billion bill for total staff remuneration, but it amounts to a huge subsidy for the militant trade unions. Unions shouldn’t be able to subversively shake down taxpayers in this way.
It’s no wonder then that TfL’s finances are in such a state. Perhaps it’s notable enough that their yearly total staff remuneration is greater than the entire GDP of Bhutan, but how that money is divvied up tells us even more. In 2020-21, 455 members of staff received remuneration in excess of £100,000 - a staggering number which is greater than that of all councils in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the North East of England combined in 2019-20! Taxpayers appreciate that TfL oversees an incredibly complex and technical system, but the sheer amount of gold-plated pay packets given out is increasingly hard to justify.
Transport for London understandably took an enormous hit during the pandemic, and the service of those who kept the system running throughout has to be recognised, but the truth is that the organisation’s finances had been in a perilous state long before covid. These bailouts - which are paid for by taxpayers from Land’s End to John o’ Groats - simply cannot continue forever. In light of rising fares and diminished passenger numbers, TfL has a duty to taxpayers to stand up to the unions, get wage bills under control and tackle its spending problems once and for all.