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Digging Underground Towards London 2012

Robin Copland

London 2012 has negotiators flexing their muscles all over the capital as we approach the final run-up to the Games.

In The Times of Friday 23 March, I read that the head of the RMT union, Bob Crow, has broken off talks with the London Underground management team at the UK conciliation service ACAS. The RMT is the union that represents tube workers' interests. The union is threatening strike action as a result of the latest proposals from the management team.

His complaint is that the current offer, which gives tube drivers a one-off payment of £1000 and other tube workers £850 if they agree to work during the three week period of the Games comes with other strings attached. Crow's complaint is that these new conditions mean that staff will have to be prepared "to work any time, any place, anywhere at the drop of a hat".

Ominously, he continues, "We don't know if there has been political interference from behind the scenes but attempting to impose a whole raft of new conditions on a Tube Olympics agreement at this stage, smacks of an attempt from somewhere to sabotage these talks." Another union official added later that strike action was definitely an option, though he was not specific as to when or where - presumably not during the Olympics, which would be an unpopular move amongst their members.

Meanwhile Howard Collins, London Underground's chief operating officer said, "the RMT's leadership demanded payments to all grades of staff regardless of whether they will be asked to work flexibly during the Games and rejected temporary changes to working arrangements which would enable us to achieve a flexible workforce."

Some observations from a negotiating standpoint.

  • Crow has a limited timeframe to use the extra power he has and is trying not only to extract short-term concessions, but at the same time avoid giving long-term concessions to management.
  • Management is trying to exploit the short-term payments concession to get their ultimate goal - a more flexible workforce. It has attempted to give the union what it wants, but on its terms. This is good negotiating behaviour, as the union well knows.
  • In order to distract attention from management's use of negotiating leverage, Crow has resorted to complaining about "political interference".
  • Finally, I worry that both the leaders of their respective organisations have taken such a public stance in these negotiations. This has happened before, most recently in the very public fall-out between BA and the UNITE union - what happened there? It took a change in senior personnel before a deal was finally put through that satisfied both parties.

Is there time, I wonder to change personnel before the Games? I think not. These chaps need to tread with care.

Robin Copland

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