London Underground workers for humane work schedules

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has decided that the city’s subway system, the London Underground, should remain open for the 48 hours from Friday morning to Sunday morning. That would add two overnight shifts to workers’ schedules. Transportation for London (TfL), which manages the Underground, claims it needs the right to arbitrarily change workers’ schedules to cover the new night work.

The four unions representing the Underground workers have held two 24-hour strikes in the last month to protest the inhuman and anti-social schedule that adds two night shifts a week.

One worker explained: “Some people are just saying, ‘It is what it is, let’s get on with it.’ But a lot of people feel, legitimately in my view, this has been forced on us. We’ve had no say in this. Our whole way of working, our sleeping patterns, our health, and our social lives could be turned upside down by working in a way we didn’t choose to.” (, July 8)

Johnson wants the change made sometime this fall — exactly when, he isn’t “fussed about” — in time for the Rugby World Cup series in London from Sept. 18 to Oct. 31.

The second Underground strike was marked by massive lines for buses and suburban trains, which were still running. A number of British papers reported that trips, which normally took an hour, were taking two hours or more. The London Underground provides 4 million rides a day.

In New York, where the subways have been a 24-hour operation for decades, the overnight shift is handled by workers hired for that time slot. It is not filled by forcing workers to do overtime.

The BBC reported Aug. 9 that the unions are preparing for a third strike. The mayor, refusing to meet with them, is claiming he will not put any more money on the table.

Mick Cash, a union leader, told the Aug. 7 Guardian that TfL’s latest offer was “just a rehash of an earlier package and does nothing to tackle the fundamental issue of our members being called into work at the beck and call of management to plug staffing gaps in the mayor’s botched Night Tube plans.”

Without a union, the London Underground’s workers would have no protection for the quality of their lives or defense for their rights as human beings. Having to respond to management’s whims when called to work is part of the reality of many workers who don’t have unions — including those in high-tech sectors, like data processing, and in low-paid service jobs.