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Going for gold: British workers cash in on Olympics with strike threats

Jim Seida / NBC News

A commuter waits for a bus at London Bridge Station on Tuesday. In June, two-thirds of London's 8,000 red buses were off the road because of a one-day strike by thousands of drivers.

LONDON -- For some, the Olympic Games represent the epitome of sporting achievement and fair play, and a noble set of ideals that help inspire humanity to dream of a better world.

But if you are a driver of one of London’s famous red buses, it should mean about $900 extra in your paycheck. And if you are a British worker who isn’t getting a coveted Olympics bonus, it means you might just go on strike just to make the point that you’re not happy.

Then there are those for whom the Games is an ideal time to raise a grievance over pay, pensions or working conditions, in the hope that the threat of industrial unrest -- as the world focuses its attention on the U.K. -- will speed the negotiations along.

Labor unions in Britain may have been relatively quiet over the government’s austerity policies, but the arrival of the Olympics has given them the chance to flex their muscles in a way that some see as far from sporting.


On Thursday -- the day before the London 2012 opening ceremony -- thousands of government workers, including Border Agency guards at airports, are due to go on strike for 24 hours in a dispute over pay and other issues. Marianna Panizza, a senior press officer at Heathrow Airport, said in an email that so far "immigration waiting times [were] well within their targets," adding that "We hope this will continue through the strike action." (Update: The PCS union called off the planned strike by U.K. border force staff on Wednesday.)

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Then on Friday, RMT union members at South West Trains, which runs services into London, will stop working overtime or coming in on rest days until Aug. 12 because they have not been offered an Olympic bonus.

Visitors arriving in London for the start of the Games should be extra careful with their possessions, as unionized staff in the lost property office at Transport for London – the company that runs the city's Tube subway network – have been told not to work shifts from 7 a.m. Friday until 7 a.m. Saturday. That also goes for staff at Transport for London’s travel information centers and the London Transport Museum.

'A question of fairness'
A dispute over Olympic payments could also disrupt London’s so-called “Boris Bikes” – bicycles available to hire cheaply on the street – from early Friday to Sunday morning.

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Jim Seida / NBC News

"The traffic affects us more than anybody else," says bus driver Stephen Hall, pictured on his break at London Bridge Station on Tuesday. "The tube drivers aren't actually doing any more work than before, but we are."

Geoff Martin, a spokesman for the RMT union, defended workers seeking a slice of the Olympic “windfall.”

“It’s a question of fairness,” he told NBCNews.com. “The vast majority of our members have got them [Olympic bonuses] … if it is right for those members to get a share of the additional profits companies will generate – which they will – why shouldn’t staff working in other companies benefit as well?”

Martin said 80,000 extra passengers a day were expected to use South West Trains services, meaning more work for staff.

“The point is, this is a unique set of circumstances. It’s the biggest transport challenge London has ever faced,” he added.

Martin said most transport companies had been “very reasonable” and agreed to let workers get their “fair share of the windfall.”

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Quite how many more people, if any, will visit the London Transport Museum -- home to such attractions as the 1866 Metropolitan Railway A class 4-4-0T steam locomotive (number 23) – because of the Olympics remains to be seen.

Last month, two-thirds of London’s 8,000 red buses were off the road because of a one-day strike by thousands of drivers.

The show of strength appears to have worked as last week saw the drivers get their deal. Staff will get an extra payment of about $42 a shift, which will mean an extra $895 or so over the period of the Games for the average worker.

Olivia Harris / Reuters, file

London bus drivers stand on a picket line near the West Ham Bus Garage in east London on June 22.

'Ambassadors for London'
A spokesman for the Unite union, which represents drivers and other workers, told NBC News that they were entitled to the extra money because of the “massive increase in passengers, the increase in traffic.”

“They’ll end up working longer and finishing their shifts later,” the spokesman said.  “They have to manage the entire bus; they have to often help passengers; they have more demands on them from passengers; they have to help a lot of people who don’t speak English.

“Our members are going to be ambassadors for London. They are going to be keeping London moving during the Olympics,” he added. “In such exceptional circumstances, they should have their extra contribution recognized financially … they shouldn’t have to be doing extra work for free.”

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Some 450 members of the Aslef union who work at East Midlands Trains also plan to strike on Aug. 6, 7, and 8, in a dispute over pensions.

Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, told London’s Evening Standard newspaper that transport unions had the government and Olympic organizers “over a barrel.”

“With an extra three million rail and [subway] journeys expected during the Games, there will be queuing at stations and dreadful congestion on trains. If the bus drivers were on strike, it is hard to imagine how bad it might get,” he said.

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But Travers also warned the unions might pay a price after London 2012 if the government decided to take revenge with “tough anti-strike laws.”

As the opening ceremony of the Olympics approaches, London is covering its bases with an influx of security forces on the ground, in the air and in the water. But officials still worry about the possibility of a 'soft target,' such as an attack on a bus, that would have a huge emotional impact on the city. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

'Ronald Reagan approach'
Thursday's planned strike by Border Agency and other government staff has caused considerable anger.

U.K. government Cabinet member Jeremy Hunt told the BBC Sunday that some members of the government had considered what he described as the “Ronald Reagan approach” of firing the striking public workers.

"I can tell you amongst [government] ministers there have been people asking whether we should be doing that, but I don't want to escalate things by talking about that right now, because I know amongst those 600 people there are lots of people who want to do the right thing and turn up for work," he told Radio 5 Live.

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Matthew Sinclair, director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance campaign group, was equally appalled, saying ordinary people would be “disgusted” at the union’s attempt to “disrupt the Olympics when the world’s eyes will be focused on Britain.”

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“We must not allow a selfish minority to disrupt the Olympics in a vain attempt to stop necessary restraint in public spending, and make the Games even more expensive for hard-pressed taxpayers,” he added.

But not all unions are taking advantage of the authorities’ precarious position on Travers’ barrel.

A spokesman for the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association said the union had decided to cancel a strike ballot at Virgin Trains over the sacking of a union official.

He said this was partly due to an agreement to negotiate but also because of a plea by Transport Secretary Justine Greening for the Olympics not to be disrupted by industrial action "in the greater interest of the country."

Lit by the sun's rays in Greece, the Olympic torch takes a 70-day, 8,000 mile trip to London for the 2012 summer Games.

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