What the scientific community can (and should) learn from the pending UK rail strike

Next week, I'm going to be in the UK. My plans for the trip are centered on two things: the room I've booked in London for the week, and the 8-day rail pass I purchased a couple of months ago. This morning I hit the National Rail website to start figuring out exactly which trains I need to take to get to the destinations I've been planning to hit. After the third or fourth inquiry I ran, I began to notice a disturbing pattern: every train I might want to take had a little yellow exclamation point icon under "status". Clicking through to details brought up a notice that, "industrial action may affect this train" and a link for yet more detail.

Clicking through to that link, I was able to find enough context to figure out that "industrial action" translates as "strike" without needing to resort to my English-English translation dictionary. I have defended unions on this blog before now, so the brief rush of euphoria that was brought on by my linguistic prowess was followed by an almost pleasant diversion into the etymology of the phrase "hoist with his own petard".

Then I moved on and began to look into the details involving both the "industrial action" and the underlying disputes.

The brief version of affairs is this: unions representing railway signalers and maintenance workers have announced that their members have authorized action, and that if the disputes that they have with Network Rail are not resolved forthwith they will strike from Tuesday to Friday of next week. The maintenance workers will be on strike for the entire period, while the signalers will only walk off during the peak hours from 0600-1000 and 1800-2200.

The representatives of the unions point out that they are being kind enough to wait until (just) after Easter to stage their walk-out. The representative of the group of companies that run the trains has (predictably) called the planned action "deplorable", because the unions are not putting the passengers interests ahead of their own. The Daily Mail, noting that the strike is set to begin on the day when the prime minister is expected to announce the date of the next national election, called the unions' timing "blatantly political."

My own reaction to the strike plans, particularly given their potential impact on my own travel, is a bit complex:

  1. Crap.
  2. Of course the timing is blatantly political. It's also brilliant. The walk-out is set to start at the beginning of a short work week. It puts the Prime Minister in a situation where he has a great deal to gain if the strike is called off, and even more to lose if it happens - Brown is already being hammered for "weakness" on labor (excuse me, labour) issues, and the last thing he needs is to have a hugely disruptive transportation strike upstage the announcement of new elections, particularly given the already poor outlook for his party.
  3. Crap.
  4. This is a fantastic example of the benefits (for workers) of collective bargaining. Without it, the 1500 workers that Network Rail wants to make "redundant" would already be gone.
  5. Did I say "crap"?

More seriously, if the industrial action takes place, I will be somewhat inconvenienced, but not tragically so. My vacation will not be ruined, but I probably won't get to all the places I was hoping to see, won't get to travel as comfortably to those I will reach, and will wind up going to some alternative sites instead of my first choices. That's not pleasant, but it's nowhere near the sort of disruption that will be faced by others (like those, for example, the plight of those who depend on the railways to permit them to live the bucolic life of the gentleman farmer without sacrificing their glamourous day job as an editor/crusher of dreams).

More seriously yet, I think that this UK railway strike is something that can - should - be very instructive to those of us who want to see changes in the public perception of science and the way science is used in policy debates in the USA.

The transportation unions are organized. They have members, an organizational structure that has some clearly identified leaders, and an effective method of discussing and communicating plans for action.

The transportation unions are consciously seeking and using all the leverage that they can find. They have used their ability to set the time for the strike to magnify the leverage they get from their not-inconsiderable ability to create major disruptions.

The transportation unions have a clearly identified short term goal that they can at least potentially achieve, which is also likely to move them closer to (or at least no further from) their also well-identified long term objectives.

The transportation unions are magnifying their strength by working together. The two unions represent slightly different constituencies and do not have the same grievances or short-term objectives. By presenting a united front, they are able to further strengthen their bargaining position.

At the moment, the scientific community shares all but four of those traits. That's something that we might want to keep in mind the next time we're wondering why we're so readily ignored, and so rarely effective.


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The transportation unions also control a monopoly here. No one has an issue with workers fighting for their perceived rights - what annoys the tits off of us is that as they don't have to be competitive they can hold the country to ransom. There's nothing really at stake for management - the customers are the ones who'll carry the burden of this.

If you're worried about the trains, then check the National Express busses. If you're flying into London, and then going somewhere close, they're are quick (e.g. I did Heathrow to Cambridge last year direct) and you avoid the hassle of the tube.

2 out of 4 of the long distance train journeys I've done in the last 2 months were delayed due to signalling issues, so getting rid of 1500 staff might not be a good idea...
Moreover just sacking maintenance workers is what happened last time round when the gvt made up a stupid privatisation of the national rail company. The end result was that tens and hundred of millions of pounds was paid out in salaraies and bonuses and profit, but the railways weren't maintained as well as they should have been, so there were several fatal accidents.

The Labor Unions in the UK have ways to prevent the strike be broken by strikebreakers. Here in the US the Unions are rather weak, and often cannot easily /legally prevent scabs. More so for scientific workers, who normally are 'exempt' employees and not unionized, and can be easily replaced from the large pool of underemployed postdocs.
As regards the various scientific/professional associations, their leadership consists often of tenured professors and similarly reasonably successful people, who most often do not want to 'rock the boat.' While most scientists might agree, that more publicity and more funding for science is a good thing, it is difficult to imagine an action similar to a strike to bring it about.

There's a fair chance the strike might not happen, so don't tear up your plans for visiting our towns and cities.

Historically there's been a fair amount of brinkmanship in industrial relations in the UK rail industry. Each side tests the other's resolve and wider support while negotiating with each other, and often strikes get called off at the last minute after they come to an agreement.

Another wrinkle this time however is that the employers are trying to get the courts to declare the strike illegal on a technicality on the grounds that some union members received ballot papers even though they were no longer employed (e.g. having just retired or whatever). To me this is an underhand tactic, a depressing indicator of creeping anti-unionisation here in the UK.

By Ian, Brighton (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

like those, for example, the plight of those who depend on the railways to permit them to live the bucolic life of the gentleman farmer without sacrificing their glamourous day job as an editor/crusher of dreams

glamourous --> glamorous.

Decision: reject.

Dreams crushed. My work here is done.

While the strike might not have crimped you, did you get caught by the volcano?

Not yet, but I'm not supposed to fly out of Europe until Sunday. (Emphasis, of course, on "supposed to".)