I had the pleasant surprise last Friday of bumping into a picket line on my way to work. The strikers were Unite members at London Dial-a-Ride – the service that offers door-to-door transport for very elderly people and for people with disabilities who cannot access public transport easily.
I stopped and had a chat with the workers on the picket line. Nobody goes on strike (and loses money) for fun – people are generally pushed to breaking point before they even consider strike action, and are typically absolutely right to use the strongest weapon that workers have.
That was certainly the case at London Dial-a-Ride. The Unite convenor told me about the background to the dispute. The booking and scheduling system was centralised a couple of years ago, with a new computer system doing the work that used to be done at local level. The system simply doesn’t work. Users are left hanging on the phone trying to book a call, can’t book rides for the times they need them, or can’t book rides at all.
This isn’t about minor inconvenience; this is about quality of life. I was told about the real distress of service users. It might be the highlight of someone’s week to go to the shops with a friend, or to go to a social club at a regular time, with people they know, knowing that they can rely on a ride there and back. ‘Flexibility’ isn’t an option when it comes to the things that are keeping you sane and making life worth living – or, for very practical reasons, when a journey is to a medical apointment, or fitted in around other health care and social care arrangements.
It isn’t just the service users who are distressed. It’s the drivers who take on responsibility for a failing system and who swap rides when they can in a desperate effort to meet peoples’ needs. The convenor told me about the drivers who are in tears when they let down Maisie who always does her shopping with her neighbour on Wednesday mornings, or Bill who always goes to his club on a Thursday afternoon.
There’s a human cost to systems that don’t work. It’s astonishing that a new system can be put in without proper testing to ensure it will work, and downright bizarre that problems persist a couple of years after the thing went live. The grotesque mismanagement increasingly leaves the future of the whole service in jeopardy.
Not content with mismanaging the service to users, senior managers seem to have decided that it’s the workforce who are the enemy. There’s a headlong gallop towards a bullying, top-down and intimidatory style of management. Existing agreements are simply being torn up. Grievances are stalled, because managers don’t want to progress them. People aren’t allowed union representation until disciplinary actions become formal – a grudging compliance with the bare legal minimum, and an approach that is punitive and anti-union. There’s no evidence at all of very committed and hard-working drivers abusing sick leave arrangements – but that hasn’t stopped managers imposing a ‘get tough’ approach to absolutely legitimate sickness and to time off for hospital appointments. There’s also a very direct attack on Unite, with facility time for stewards being slashed. All of this is a massive attack on collective bargaining in Dial-a-Ride. Workers are much easier to push around if they’re isolated individuals, without the protection of a union that negotiates for everyone.
Were London Dial-a-Ride workers right to go on strike last Friday? Of course they were. Will they be right to take the dispute forward, if members back this? Again, of course they will be. The needs of Dial-a-Ride users and Dial-a-Ride workers seem pretty much the same here: a right to be treated with respect and decency.