Upon the death of famed trade unionist Bob Crow, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone noted that the ‘only working-class people who still have well-paid jobs in London are [RMT] members’, a sentiment probably truer now than it was on Crow’s death in 2014.
With the increasing levels of inequality and poverty in the capital, the London Underground drivers (many of whom are represented by the RMT Union) are part of one of the last secure job markets in the area and remain a well-respected trade in London, as well as one of its iconic mainstays.
That, unfortunately, is set to change with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to replace all of the Underground’s drivers – nearly four thousand of them, I should add – with automated trains, as it was part of the bailout deal to Transport For London last week, in return for a funding settlement for TFL in autumn.
This is a disastrous decision that will negatively impact the Underground, not to mention the drivers, for years to come.
Now while my point of view may be slightly biased – it comes from someone who has family members who work in the Underground (albeit not as a driver) and having met other employees of TFL that were worried about losing their jobs ‘in a decade’ due to automation – the arguments here should be at least as substantive as possible to sway anyone to the problems such a scheme may lead us down in the future.
Firstly, it is hard to justify killing nearly four thousand well paid and stable jobs at this moment in time. Given that there will be a possible recession and unemployment spike on the horizon, due to the unintended side effects of the coronavirus lockdown, the fact some of the more vital assets in keeping London going during the pandemic are possibly going to be unemployed by the end of the year is a kick in the teeth.
The worsening inequality and poverty in the capital aforementioned will only leave these drivers further in the lurch.
All of this makes sense if you abide by unrestricted neoliberalism, of which Boris Johnson clearly does, hence why he has supported giving the Tubes automated drivers since his days as London Mayor.
But how has that experiment turned out exactly?
Well, there is evidence, and it is not exactly encouraging, at least in the UK. For instance, University of Oxford researchers in 2018 found that over 66 thousand jobs have been lost to automation, with more losses to occur in the future, mainly affecting those in retail and white van jobs.
Other research noted that the decade between 2007-2017 saw a 17% loss in manufacturing jobs in the UK, in part due to automation rising in that industry. Meanwhile, a study by the think tank Future Advocacy warned that one-fifth of all jobs in the UK were at risk from automation.
This seems far too drastic to move forward with, especially since the other necessary changes to the industry that are needed to sustain a move, such as increased technical training in secondary school and university to prepare for this shift or other new jobs for those not technically minded aren’t in place yet.
It’s too much rapid change in a country whose governing elites since the 1980s have only believed in such rapid change, ignoring how it left many of their constituencies broken, and their constituents angry and without a voice.
Meanwhile, there are clear structural disadvantages to making robots the sole drivers on the Underground as well.
At their worst, humans may take days off to call in sick and if ill at work, there are contingency plans. As someone who has been in the driver’s area of an Underground train before, there are safety mechanisms to alert other drivers, such as in the case of a heart attack.
Machines don’t have that luxury. They can break, be tampered with, malfunction, be hacked, wear out, glitch, crash, be wrongly programmed, and simply not work among many other things that can lead to very serious problems, especially where passengers’ lives are concerned.
There have already been cases of fatalities caused by driverless cars in the United States, let alone trains, which have more people to carry, and more opportunity to make mistakes. And while thankfully the automated Docklands Light Railway has been mostly accident-free, the fact that such a system isn’t foolproof – with non-fatal crashes taking place in 1987 and 1991 – should be concerning.
In conclusion, there isn’t much justification for such a system. It furthers a scheme of employment that has so far been disastrous for the working class, and it attacks one of the last sustainable jobs they can weld when it comes to living in London.
The potential for this new system to malfunction meanwhile is far more damaging than if humans remained involved, as the failings of other driverless automation have shown thus far.
In other words, this is not a good system, with the only people set to benefit being greedy technology business owners who benefit financially from such a push, all the while the managerial class in both TFL and government can gladly claim they have dealt with the supposed menace of the RMT union and others like it – and by doing so, continuing an unfortunate tradition in modern Britain of ensuring working-class labour has no power or leverage against scrupulous employers.
It is no coincidence that these took place in the Thatcherite revolution and beyond, whereby working-class labour and manufacturing jobs have been pushed aside in favour of the banking and financial sectors among many others, that inequality has increased.
Hopefully, this can be one stage in the economic revolution that can be avoided, or a compromise reached.
With any luck, those at the RMT and their fellow unions shall be successful in their campaign, and we as citizens should support them.