January 15, 2017


Mind the closing doors: echoes of Thatcher in UK railway battle (Michael Holden, 1/15/17, Reuters)

For a labor dispute on a railway with just 4,000 employees, the costs have been colossal. Hundreds of thousands of people are regularly affected. A university study last month estimated the dispute had so far cost the economy 300 million pounds.

Officially, the argument is over a seemingly small issue: who should open and close train doors. That task now sometimes falls to conductors who ride in train carriages; Southern says train drivers can do it themselves.

The unions say that would be dangerous. Management says it is the practice on other lines and deemed safe by regulators. It would mean trains could sometimes run without a guard on board, although the company says it has no plans to reduce staff and will keep "supervisors" on trains to help passengers.

Despite the narrow issue, both sides accuse their opponents of having far bigger aims, turning it into the most consequential industrial action in Britain for decades.

Members of the ruling Conservative party say militant unions are deliberately fomenting commuter chaos for political reasons. Unions and the opposition Labour Party say the government is prolonging the feud to break the back of the labor movement.

And it could get worse. Unions are threatening more strikes against other railways. Conservative politicians are calling for changes to laws to make such strikes more difficult, or even ban them, a step which would be seen as a broad attack on labor.

Already the worst industrial dispute on Britain's railways since privatization, it lends Prime Minister Theresa May's new tenure an echo of the era of her hero Margaret Thatcher, who transformed and polarized Britain by crushing its coal miners.

Since Thatcher left office in 1990, Britain has experienced nearly three decades of labor peace, with only a fraction of the thousands of days per year lost to strikes that were typical from the 1950s through the 1980s. tmsnrt.rs/2iA784k

The left bemoans the loss of union power. The right considers it a triumph, now under threat from union militants.

They won't have drivers or conductors in short order.

Posted by at January 15, 2017 8:15 AM