How to get Londoners onside during the tube strike

Wooden train set illustrating a blog that discusses how the language used by London Underground put customers in the middle of the tube strike squabble.

Full disclosure: I like unions. Without them, we wouldn’t have paid parental leave, a minimum wage or even a weekend. And I believe that no-one goes on strike unless they believe there’s something important at stake.

I was lucky.

I made it in to work today. I take the Overground and, if anything, my regular train was a little quieter than usual.

I read Facebook all the way and most of what I read was anger – anger at the tube drivers for ‘holding London to ransom’, and anger at the ‘greed’ of demanding more money when they ‘already make more than our hardworking teachers and nurses’.

On a day like today, when there’s a lot of conflicting information flying around, and people are angry, it’s even more important to do justice to what’s at stake, and help people separate the nonsense from facts.

That’s why, when an RMT member handed me this flyer outside Liverpool Street, I felt a bit deflated.

RMT article


It’s not a bad flyer. It’s impassioned, and it gets the message across. But it’s harder to follow than it should be, and it’s got a few bugs that risk weakening the argument.

Here are a few thoughts on what could be working better:

1. It makes too many arguments at once

Let’s start with structure. The flyer can’t decide whether the issue is a ‘programme of cuts’, being asked to work more nights and weekends, or the importance of keeping you, the passenger, safe. Maybe it’s all of these things. But there’s no hierarchy. The arguments are munged together into a mass of unhelpfully bolded-out text that jumps between points.

Instead, decide what’s important

What’s the most important issue? Is it cuts? Is it passenger safety? Or is it the fundamental unfairness of trying to change someone’s contract? Let the most important issue structure the flyer. And if there are lots of important issues, declare them up front. To make the message easy to absorb, use subheadings and tackle them one at a time.

2. It leaves out the reader

Unions give regular people a voice. That’s what makes them brilliant. But while the flyer gives a great sense of what the union wants, it’s less sure-footed when it’s explaining why the public should get behind them.

Instead, build a connection between tube staff and the reader

Tube workers are Londoners too. They look after us every day and, when they’re not working, they take the tube themselves. Remind us of that. Remind us that you’d all rather be working. And show us why these causes matter to us all. The messages are there: the night tube needs to be safe, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when it’s going to be really busy. You’re worried that running the tube all night means less time to fix the trains and the track, and that means more accidents. But bring it all together: ‘these changes will make London Underground less safe for you. That’s why you should care.’

And to connect the reader with the issue of wages, you could even throw the question back at us: London Underground wants tube workers to work hours they never signed up for, and it wants these new hours to be a condition of any pay rises in future – Would you let your employer change your contract like this?
3. It doesn’t acknowledge that strikes make everyone’s day worse

It’s easy to think either that unions can’t wait to call a strike, or that they don’t care if they make everyone’s day harder. A good few newspapers love to stoke that belief and, when we’re already angry at having to work from home or pile on to a sweaty bus, it’s easier than ever to let ourselves think the worst.

Instead, show the reader why the strike is the lesser of two evils

If I’d written this piece, my headline would be: ‘We’re sorry we made it harder for you to get to work today. Here’s why we had to do it.’ I’d start by telling you that I know I’ve put you out, then I’d tell you why the issue is so important that there was no other way. (Remember that the last time all four tube unions went on strike was over a decade ago).

4. It plays fast and loose with statistics

We’re told that assaults on staff are up by 44%, but there’s no more information. Whenever we see a statistic with nothing to explain or support it, we should be wary. In this case, it gets worse. I googled that stat and found the answer in a BBC article — Basically, more people are reporting assaults. But the overall numbers have dropped significantly. Misusing statistics like this makes us doubt everything you say, even if you’ve got really important cause, or one that the reader agrees with.

Instead, use statistics, but use them honestly and always cite your sources

It’s the only way to make a statistic credible.

5. It strays from the point

I get it. You don’t like austerity. Neither do I. But talking about ‘this Tory government’, sniping about voting figures and bringing up MPs’ pay just dilutes the issue and risks sounding political. The danger is that people will think that you’re more interested in annoying a government you don’t like, than doing the right thing for its own sake.

Instead, play it straight

Talk about this problem today.

6. It’s overly negative
There’s more in here about what the union doesn’t want, than what it does want. This makes it easy for critics to accuse them of being overly negative, or even of being luddites.

Instead, talk just as much about what you want

There’s lots of important information here. The RMT actually supports the night tube. Tube staff already work on a shift pattern. The point is that the balance is being tipped too far in one direction.