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Saturday, 9 December 2017

Auckland's Train Strike

Unions get a bad rap from all sorts of people. Sometimes that's deserved. The union guys in GBH are pretty terrible people. I mean, they might not know the whole story but they still terrorise little kids because they can't set up a strike properly. That's not defensible. And, yeah, you do get actual strikes that do terrible things. For example, beating up "scabs" or those who break picket lines and go to work anyway. But unions do good things: they fight the power imbalance of the labour market.

Transport strikes get really interesting. A lot of people depend on public transport to get to their jobs, and the increased traffic theoretically repeats on everyone in general. This is the whole point of a strike. The idea is to make the bosses realise that the little guy actually matters. Usually this is by hitting the bosses' commercial interests, but public sector strikes are more about inconvenience. And let me tell you that the rigmarole I went through yesterday was inconvenient. Although, the cop car's blocking the entrance to the bus station was surely not a sign of solidarity. Naturally, there are people who are stopping just short of having the union involved lined up against the wall and shot.

The basic issue at the heart of Friday's strike is the forthcoming demise of the train managers (conductor, guard type people) and ticket inspectors. Or, in other words, driver only operation. I don't think this is a good idea. Let's put it this way... if you can agree that having single-staff operated trains is desirable, who would you rather get rid of? the train manager? or the driver? (driverless trains are a thing). I think the majority of people are lying to themselves if they say the conductors.

I'm not entirely convinced that the Union involved is taking the right tack here. A lot of people are framing the issue as a question of safety. I think that's a poor argument. Firstly, because Auckland's trains are safe. I can think of a grand total of two news stories this year about incidents on the train. I know people who will change station at night out of safety concerns but here's the thing... they are still catching the train itself. Secondly, because the main "safety" thing the train managers do is something that is criticised a lot... they manage the doors. Auckland has a station dwell time problem. There are a bunch of causes and one of the ones that gets singled out is that train managers sometimes hold trains up to let people on. You see this quite a lot. And the train managers are also responsible for introducing lag when they check no-one's in the way of the doors. That's managed in other ways at present.

The reason why having conductors is preferable to drivers is because they are customer facing. Sure, there's no real contact if you're in a six carriage train and the manager is in the other set of three, but that's a third problem with the safety argument. When you frame the train manager as a manager you set up lower stakes and emphasise the human element of what it is they do. Maybe the train managers ought to know more about the transport network as a whole. Maybe critics of the strike are right about that. But the train managers are the person to talk to if someone is mucking around with the doors. If they've got feet on chairs. If they're playing music loudly. And the train manager is who you'd talk to if something happened. They're who you can train to make a decision about what to do if, say, a medical issue occurred. The driver is completely useless in all these situations. The people, if any are present, on the platforms are useless.

The reality, though, is that Auckland's trains are a lifetime away from being driverless. But this logic is worth considering. It reveals that the reason the managers are being ditched isn't something to do with their redundancy, an argument which (as discussed) is more tenable when you argue from safety grounds. Rather, the managers are being ditched because of the arbitrary fare recovery ratio imposed on AT by faceless bureaucrats. It's quite disgusting that Greater Auckland believes (a) that the ratio is arbitrary but is (b) pro-mass lay offs. It's a position they're able to sustain because they have only engaged with the single narrative of safety.

Now, we ought to say some things in AT's defence. It is possible that they're incoming new role will be able to resolve some of these issues but everyone I've heard suggests that the new transport officers are just going to be jacked up ticket inspectors. Yeah, there is going to be more of them, and yeah they'll mean that the network has more on-board staff in the system but they're not going to be on every service. They're not being sold based on people skills. They are being sold based on their ability to kick people off trains. They are, in short, another reason to choose something other than safety to argue on. And they're not a role that everyone will be able to transition to, either.

Thinking about what it is the train managers do reveals the spurious nature of the for and against arguments, because everyone is an idiot (quelle surprise) and safety just misses the point. Maybe the transport officers are going to be trained so that they do it all. Maybe AT are going to handle things so that they transition as many current staff into the new role as possible. Maybe AT are going to manage the lay offs well. I don't know. But making sure AT do these sorts of things is exactly why unions exist. And it is exactly why there should be strikes if it looks like these kinds of thing aren't going to happen. And sure this strike probably had the wrong logic to achieve such outcomes, and it's distracted from the big picture (the arbitrary ratio, fare recovery issues with the New Network, a broke Council and a decade of neglect from central government) but the abstract strike doesn't justify the rhetoric it's received. Especially when dealing with an organisation as poor at customer contact as AT.

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