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5 August 2015

If you think Tube drivers are overpaid, you don’t understand how capitalism works

If I could bring the New Statesman grinding to a halt with no fear of being rapidly replaced, you better believe I'd be paid over £50,000 too.

By Stephen Bush

There are some questions that are difficult to answer: most of the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind fall into this category. 

Then there are other questions where the clue is in the title. “Why are people who can bring London to a halt so well-paid?” is one. 

But London’s imminent Tube strike means that the question is once again on everyone’s lips.  The starting salary – close to £50k – is a particular bone of contention as are the 48 days of paid leave. 

Now there are plenty of good left-wing arguments for why Tube drivers are worth the whack – and the dispiriting one that if you are the family’s sole earner, £50k in London is not exactly gold toilet money – and it’s worth pointing out that most Tube drivers start working as station staff – a starting salary of £20k. 

But there’s a much better right-wing one, and it’s this: there’s no such thing as an overpaid worker in a capitalist society. There’s just what the market decides people are worth. Tube drivers have something almost everybody in London wants, are difficult to replace and are well-organised. If I could bring the New Statesman to a standstill by not turning up for work and wasn’t eminently replaceable, you better believe I’d hold out for a great deal more than £50k. 

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So, fine, if you think the future of human society is a commune where everyone shares everything, or support a cap in executive pay, then it’s perfectly respectable to say that Tube drivers are overpaid. But I notice that most of the commentators who think Tube drivers are overpaid don’t think bankers are overpaid. Or that taxes on the globally-mobile super-rich are too low. (It’s almost like there’s another motive at work, huh?) 

And of course increasing the cost of humans on the Tube will hasten the development of robots on trains, but bluntly, almost all of us will be replaced by robots sooner rather than later. (I hear a machine capable of writing news stories about open letters in support of one candidate or another for the Labour leadership is just months away from completion.) The only difference is that Tube drivers will have been better-paid before the inevitable happens.

But, frankly? If you think Tube drivers are “overpaid”, you don’t understand how capitalism works.