You'd almost think everything was usually fine. Whenever Tube or rail workers go on strike, it's always the same: a hundred thousand wailing mouths suddenly start screaming about Chaos. Everything was OK before, they moan: we lived in our house, we took the train to work, we got there exactly ten minutes early, our lives were ordered, and now it's in chaos.
Buses – slightly more crowded than usual! Traffic jams – slightly more irritating than they were yesterday! Your working day, sitting bored in an office, waiting for death to take you at your appointed time – slightly shorter than it might have been! Tourists densely packed in their multitudes outside Oxford Circus, a heaving sea of people crammed between the locked gates and the entrance to the Nike store, having lost all reason and purpose, an angry and atomised crowd ready to start setting fires unless the Central line is back up and running again. Will you ever see your family again? How long before people start resorting to cannibalism? How long before the whole of London breaks up into armed fiefdoms, gangs bursting heads open with blunt bits of wood? How can anyone keep their lives and their sanity in this cruel and chaotic world, where everything stable falls away into the January fog, and you might be late for work?
Before a few rail workers decided to go on strike, everything was running smoothly. It's all the fault of a few union bosses, worshippers of ancient chaos, who for reasons that can't quite be explained suddenly brought a terrifying disorder to your life. This is the myth, screamed from the editorial pages of just about every newspaper, intoned by rail administrators on TV, and it's bullshit.
They want you to forget: to forget that it was like this yesterday, and that it'll be like this tomorrow too. They're encouraging you to hate the strikes and moan about the strikers, because they think of you as being basically being very stupid, forgetting the events of every day as soon as the clock strikes midnight, and waking up the next day blank and witless. Southern Rail has been in crisis for months now – trains were late or overcrowded or cancelled altogether, prices were steadily rising for a service that's been getting steadily worse, thousands of people have faced the low humming panic of being late to work, and it had nothing to do with strikes. Tube stations are periodically transformed into Hadean stampedes; services frantically blink on and off; the whole system is on the point of failure every single day; and it's not the fault of the RMT.
In so many cases, it's because the private companies that operate the rail system are desperate to fire as many workers as possible, because their stockholders think that a smaller workforce will mean more profits, even if it makes life harder for anyone just trying to catch a train. The unions are going on strike to stop this, to end the chaos, and then they're accused of causing it.
You complain that the strikes are stopping you from getting to work; rail workers are on strike to make sure they have a job to get to. But it's not just that. The dispute between Southern Rail and the unions is centred on the network's plans to fire its train guards – the people who make sure everyone's safely on the train before it departs – and have the services operated solely by the drivers. Getting rid of the guards means it's more likely that you will be sandpapered into bloody scraps as a train drags you carelessly along the platform – the RMT have compiled a list of incidents like that. But it doesn't matter. The Department of Transport has put a number on your life: not being killed on your miserable morning slog to work is worth £1.96 million. If the train companies can make savings of £1.97 million on your death, then there's no harm done.
They're banking on the idea that you'd rather die – have your paltry little life snuffed out by a pair of automatically closing doors – than be late to work. Of course, you don't think about it that way. It's someone else – an anonymous someone who is never remembered as your train arrives 20 minutes late to spit you into the waiting hungry mouth of an office building – who sacrifices themselves for your spreadsheets. But in the fantastic lottery of commuter rail, it could always be you. And £1.96 million isn't really that much money. You can be replaced; before long there'll be someone else at your desk, complaining about train strikes in the same half-joking, half-whiny tone. In the grand scheme of things, you don't really matter. Better a few dead bodies, fading into the background of ordinary life, than chaos.
Maybe you really don't value your life. Maybe you really believe that half an hour of office time-wasting at the start of your day is worth more than a Tube worker's entire livelihood. Maybe you'd rather have the daily misery of crowds and uncertainty knocking against your skull, day in, day out, than a service that actually works at the cost of one day of capital-c Chaos. Fine: you're probably not alone. But don't inflict your petulance on everyone else. For the love of god, stop whining about the strikes.
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