Despite the fact that you can’t unilaterally change employment contracts, people often seem to try to do it. This is especially relevant in COVID times. You can insist that people you pay to teach for example. But you can’t fire them if they don’t do it in person.
I used to be an investment banker. This apparently makes me a class enemy to some in the Labour movement. Although I voted Labour throughout the Blair years, I have been told that my vote is not welcome. This is the kind of debate, I suppose, that will inform the leadership competition. Electability or purity? My point here in bringing this up as a preliminary is so that you do not think I am an automatic union partisan. I think on this occasion — for the first time — the RMT is right, and if I as a generally unsympathetic person think so, perhaps they are.
It is right that you can’t unilaterally change employment contracts and the RMT is correct to point that out. I will describe why I think that below.
Why You Can’t Unilaterally Change Employment Contracts
It is a principle of employment law that you cannot arbitrarily make adverse changes to people’s contracts. In fact, you can’t ever change a contract without the agreement of the other side. Public sector management seems to act as if in ignorance of this surprisingly often. When I was in private equity, we would never have done that. Sure, we would have fired people who were incompetent and made people performing activities that were no longed needed redundant, but no-one gains from having a disgruntled workforce — and what is more likely to make them disgruntled than trying to change their contracts against their will?
Here’s how you handle this TfL situation if you are a competent private sector manager. You say to the workforce, “guys, we need to run an all-night service. We need volunteers to work ten weeks of nights a year. We are offering an uplift of five grand. Who’s up for it?”. You then find out if you get enough people who want to do it. We can assume that the current uplift of two grand is inadequate, both for the reasons that it looks inadequate — an extra 100 quid a month in your pocket after the government has taken its cut does not look like a good deal — and because the RMT have chosen to strike rather than accept it.
Consequences of the Fact That You Can’t Unilaterally Change Employment Contracts
One of two things now ensues. With luck, you get enough volunteers to run your service. Maybe the younger drivers think they can go to Ibiza a couple of times a year and its worth it to them. Maybe the older ones value spending time with their families more. This is fine. If you don’t get enough volunteers, you either up the offer or recruit. Maybe you recruit specialist night drivers — there is some evidence that the adverse health effects of shift work are more to do with the disruption of shift changes than the nocturnal activity. You might have to pay more for these specialist night drivers. The union should not want to stop you doing this.
This may of course result in your service becoming more expensive. This has to be paid for. The obvious thing to do is increase prices to users of the night time service. Most of us have had one drink too many in Soho and ended up taking a cab which might cost £30. If the alternative is a tube which is twice the normal tube price, say £8, that’s a good deal, right?
Although I still think that £49,673 is quite a high non-graduate starting salary, I do think it is fair enough for the RMT to say that it is not on to impose night working on their members. It is a major adverse contractual change and drivers can reasonably insist on the right not to do it; the response is to pay them more until enough of them agree.