It's nearly midnight on Saturday night at a busy nightspot on the Northern line. The overwhelming sense you get from the stumbling, tottering crowd is one of confusion: "where are we going again?" echoes repeatedly round the ticket hall before anyone reaches their destination. One girl, valiantly attempting to sneak through the barriers without paying while simultaneously touching up her lipgloss, doesn't quite make it. Behind the barriers, two pissed-up groups have come together to collab on an acappella version of "Hollaback Gurl" while someone drums out the beat by battering the sides of the escalator.
As the last tubes are leaving, staff attempting to control the flow of the kebab-wielding crowd are looking increasingly pained: one tactfully moves a couple who are blocking the tube map by aggressively making out on it. Another rushes off to deal with a smashed bottle of Heineken just before the entrance to the main ticket hall.
Soon, with the introduction of 24-hour running on selected lines, Londoners will be able to get even more pissed, for longer, and stumble around the tube indefinitely. Neon-sloganed "Free The Night" posters announce the September 12th start date on every platform I stop at on the way home.
That's all well and good, and will presumably save a lot of people waking up with an Uber bill with a "Surge x2" charge. But for tube workers who are striking this week over the Night Tube's implementation, the question is for whom the night is free, and what the cost will be.
According to underground workers I spoke to are concerned, it's definitely not free for them, their colleagues, or their family. "It's maddening how little London Underground understand the impact that this will have on staff", a station supervisor who we'll call Sarah tells me. "They don't appreciate what impact the time of day you work has – as if it doesn't make a difference whether you work eight hours from 9 'til 5 or whether you work eight hours starting at two o' clock in the morning."
This is the backdrop to the tube strike that's set to take place today and Thursday. It's the biggest industrial action on the tube since 2002 and it's set to completely fuck up travel into and around London, with every tube line affected. Everyone is really annoyed at the prospect of boarding a bus that feels like a clown car, pay way over the odds for a cab or walk home for two hours.
But tube workers say they're trying to save themselves from more than just inconvenience. Night shifts are "not just another eight hour shift," says Sarah. "You won't sleep properly for another week because your body is recovering. You might not be able to see much of your family for another week because you're so tired."
While Sarah's used to anti-social working, many people junior to her are simply having to knuckle down and accept night working which they weren't contracted to do. When I ask one of her colleagues – let's call him James – what the general feeling about Night Tube is among tube workers, he tells me, "Some people are just saying, 'it is what it is, let's get on with it'. But a lot of people feel, legitimately in my view, this has been forced on us. We've had no say in this. Our whole way of working, our sleeping patterns, our health, and our social lives could be turned upside down by working in a way we didn't choose to."
The focus so far has been on negotiations over pay, but when I speak to Sarah, it's clear that her primary concern is for her physical safety as a woman working nights. TfL's website states that there will be an increased policing presence – 100 British Transport Police (BTP) officers deployed to cover 144 stations. That's less that one officer per station, which Sarah feels is hugely inadequate.
"I work alone during the night at the moment, so I know already what it's like dealing with customers on Friday and Saturday nights. The BTP's presence... well, they basically might as well not be there at all. I've worked on the Underground for a few years now. I've been violently assaulted three or four times. I've been pushed around. I've been sexually assaulted. And most of the time it has been from drunk customers. Attacks on London Underground staff have increased in the last year, and the number of assaults is pretty shocking."
While the problem is widespread, Sarah's experience of the support is inadequate. "When I was going to get counselling after my assault, sometimes I'd be waiting a number of weeks, because all of the appointments were booked up so far in advance. It's a really serious problem. I know people whose lives have literally been ruined by attacks from drunk customers on the underground."
On Monday, TfL's initial offer of 0.75 percent pay increase for 2016-2017 to compensate for the late shifts was, in an eleventh-hour attempt to avert the strike, raised to 1 percent, plus a £500 payment for all staff (an "average increase" of 2 percent). While drivers affected by the night tube have now been offered a £2,000 bonus for 24-hour working, the initial offer to station staff of £500 remains unchanged.
I put it to James plenty of Londoners would be high-fiving their HR manager if they were offered a £2,000 raise, even if it meant having to do night work. James is clearly used to hearing this line of argument. "As ever, the main angle the media has gone for is 'tube drivers earning 50k strike for more money'. And that obviously ignores the fact that drivers are a small section of the workforce – we certainly don't all earn that much," he says.
In any case, suggests James, it doesn't make sense for people to bemoan the cost of living crisis, zero hours jobs and poverty wages one minute, and the next to complain about some workers who are actually doing alright. "Part of the reason that they do earn that much, and the reason that the rest of us have relatively high wages compared to people doing similar jobs in other industries, is because historically our unions have fought for those conditions."
As we wrap up our conversation, Sarah doesn't sound too hopeful. "I think a lot of people would leave if they could", she says. "But we can't because of what the economy's like. The job market's flagging, wages are low. And management know that, of course. They're exploiting the depressed economy. Basically, they know that we're a bit... stuck." Her words put me in mind of how angry commuters will be feeling tonight and tomorrow. I guess they have more in common than they would think.
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