A 24-hour Tube doesn't make 750 job losses any better

It's hard not to see the prospect of all-night Tube parties as a distraction from the larger issue of budget cuts to the capital's transport network.

Rarely has a transport announcement caused such joy, but Londoners - long jealous of their New York City cousins across the pond - are finally getting a 24-hour Tube service. It's only on Fridays and Saturdays, and it's only on five lines (well, four-and-a-half, technically), but this is big news.

The night bus, those post-midnight caravels that weave their way through the streets of pre-dawn London, will no longer be one of the defining experiences of the city's nightlife.

The choice of lines to stay open is a curious one, apparently justified because of signalling and train upgrades that will make all-night operation possible by 2015. Still, it's clearly a move that is aimed at the West End - those lines all go through there, and it's the Northern line's Bank branch (which goes along the edge of Shoreditch, another nightlife centre) that misses out. More lines may begin all-night operation over the years, subject to a range of factors, Transport for London has said.

It's not all good news, though. TfL will be closing every single ticket office across the Tube network, with the loss of 750 jobs. That's a huge cut, and directly contradicts Boris Johnson's 2008 manifesto pledge to stop any ticket office closures.

The justification, according to TfL, is that there will still be at least one member of staff in every station that is open at all times. However, they're going to be given "the latest mobile technology" (read: iPads with WiFi) so they can keep an eye on things no matter where they are in the station. For some stations, this could be fine; for others, especially those in busy tourist areas - where everyone will be expected to buy their tickets from machines - it could be much worse. There will be six "information centres" kept open in the six busiest tube stations (Waterloo, Victoria, King's Cross-St Pancras, Oxford Circus, London Bridge, Liverpool Street) but that's your lot.

Night buses can be frightening places, especially for women. The thought of taking that experience underground, alone, in a large station with only one person on duty to offer help if needed, is a cause for concern. The RMT has made it clear that it considers these staffing changes a threat to passenger safety; ironically, considering Boris Johnson's determination to switch the Tube to driverless trains as a way to prevent strikes, the extra night trains will probably mean new drivers will be hired, increasing the RMT's leverage.

There are also changes to how tickets work. TfL is already phasing out cash payments for bus tickets and has introduced compatibility with contactless debit and credit cards, and a similar push is being made with the Underground. For most people this makes sense, as the changes will make it so that there's a daily and weekly cap on how much your card is charged to create de facto travelcards. While there are no plans to get rid of Oyster, it's clearly not going to be around forever. This creates problems of accessibility for that significant minority who will find it harder to pay for their journeys, either because they haven't got a bank account with which to get a contactless card, or who find using ticket machines difficult.

It's very hard not to see the announcement of a 24-hour Tube as a way of drowning out the large job losses and controversial changes to how transport in London will work. There's a big hole in TfL's budget thanks to a £225m drop in funding from central government, and two main tools to combat that are above-inflation fare rises (check) and staff cuts (check) - these plans, as announced, will save £270m for TfL in operation costs over five years.

Quite a lot of that funding gap would have been covered by not doing things like building a crap cable car or commissioning a pointless custom-built bus, but it's too late now. Oh well.

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Now listen to Ian discussing this with Helen Lewis on the NS Podcast:

 

The new 24-hour Night Tube, as it'll work from 2015. (Image: TfL)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.