Tube strike? Fine! At last, some militancy

The Eighties generation was promised gold but got the sack. We'll gladly walk to work, says Louise Jury
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The Independent Online
Three cheers for the strikers! Hurrah for the tube drivers! They may have brought chaos to the capital, but there has to be a round of applause for those willing to stand up to intransigent management, a frisson of excitement that the worker has not completely disappeared under the big boot of the boss.

You do not have to agree with the strikers to sympathise. There were probably many people surprised to learn that you can earn more than pounds 25,000 as a driver on the London Underground. Besides, anyone stuck in a traffic jam yesterday was entitled to a sense-of-humour failure.

But the disruption does not alarm the younger generation, as union militancy once scared our parents. For the growing proportion of the population unable to remember the pre-Thatcher era, the current industrial unrest cannot ignite memories of the three-day week and it prompts only hazy recollections of the Winter of Discontent. We are too young.

Anyone reaching adulthood in the late Eighties will recall the bitter battles of Wapping and the last great miners' strike. But for every student activist to have carried a banner outside the News International newspaper plant or held a fund-raising event for the workers of South Wales, there were dozens more heading for mega-buck starting salaries in the City and a pre-stock market crash promise of wealth everlasting.

The dream did not last. We became the disappointed generation, inheriting negative equity and job insecurity in a society where to have joined the ranks of lawyers, accountants and bankers was no longer a passport to success, but just a ticket for a temporary salary. Redundancy became commonplace in professions hitherto unaffected by its nasty shock, and short-term contracts a new norm.

So yesterday, we gave a little cheer. The cause may be doomed, the workers may not be right - though if London Underground management last year made a promise, it seems reasonable it should honour it.

But the absolute merits of the case are barely the point. The broad-brush impressions are what excite the sympathy: that management may not be playing fair, that terms and conditions are being eroded, that this is one last stand against bosses who have been holding all the cards and have the ultimate threat - there are plenty of people who want the jobs if those in dispute do not.

Such militant chuckling over strike action is not simply the last dying note of radicalism, nor the mischievous amusement of those never to have voted for a party in power. For there is a serious point, too. Earlier this month, the Institute of Personnel and Development warned that rising grievances at work were threatening Britain's economic competitiveness. It called for a government inquiry into employee relations and for companies to rebuild lost trust with their workforces. Geoff Armstrong, the IPD director, warned: "The prospect of the axe is hardly going to encourage someone to innovate or make that extra effort. If managers want people who will stick their necks out, rather than keep their heads down, they will have to rebuild the trust that has been lost."

Disruption caused by the tube strike is a little local difficulty, albeit detrimental to the ease of everyday life and work. The British are renowned for grit in overcoming all hurdles. No tubes? Then we walk, share a cab with strangers, queue for hours for a bus. One woman was spotted in the bread basket of a bicycle.

Such inconvenience is tolerable. The strong sense of grievance in the workforce is not. It bodes badly for the success of the nation.