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Unions slam government bill to keep trains running during strikes

Rebecca Goodman
Written By:
Rebecca Goodman

The government has brought forward a bill which will make sure a minimum transport service will run during strike action to ensure it “no longer grinds the country to a halt”.

Under The Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, companies will be required to maintain a certain level of service “even during the most disruptive of strikes”, the government announced.

It said that as well as “grinding the country to a halt”, strike action has a “huge impact on people’s day-to-day lives”.

Meanwhile, an assessment of the first wave of rail strikes in June 2022 alone is estimated to have cost the UK economy nearly £100m, “putting pressures on business and stopping people across the country from accessing their workplace during a cost-of-living crisis”.

The government said taking action on strikes will allow passengers to go to work, attend school and make vital medical appointments. And the new law will mean businesses and passengers “are no longer disproportionately and unfairly hit in the pocket through events outside of their control”.

Prime Minister, Liz Truss, said: “Hardworking people and businesses should not be held to ransom by strike action which has repeatedly crippled our transport network this year.

“This legislation delivers on our 2019 manifesto and will not only limit the unions’ ability to paralyse our economy, but will ensure passengers across the country can rightly continue to get to work, school or hospital.”

The bill, part of Truss’s commitment to introduce the legislation within her first 30 parliamentary sitting days, comes as the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union yesterday announced a fresh wave of strike action this winter.

Minimum service levels during strike action

The legislation will mean:

  • A minimum service level must be in place during transport strikes – if this is not delivered, the unions will lose legal protections from damages
  • It will be up to employers to decide how many workers are needed for an ‘adequate service level’. Unions must take reasonable steps to ensure an appropriate number of specified workers still work on strike days
  • Specified workers who still take strike action will lose their protection from automatic unfair dismissal.

The specific details of how minimum service levels will apply to transport services will be published after a public consultation. The bill will undertake its first reading today and is expected to come into law in 2023.

The plans also come as Labour leader Keir Starmer made a speech at the Labour Party Conference promising to repeal Conservative anti-trade union laws including the Trade Union Act 2018.

‘An autocratic move from an increasingly despotic Prime Minister’

Trade unions have slammed the bill. The Trades Union congress (TUC), said: “This is no more than a lame duck Prime Minister lashing out at working people and their unions.”

It said it would “oppose these proposals every step of the way”, adding: “This is a naked attempt to stop workers improving pay and conditions. Unfair, unworkable and incompatible with our international commitments.”

RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, said: “This cynical piece of legislation outlaws effective legal industrial action on our railways.

“It is an autocratic move from an increasingly despotic Prime Minister trying to cling on to her fledging premiership.

“All democrats whether inside or outside parliament must oppose this draconian attempt to clamp down on the fundamental human right to strike.”

ASLEF, the train drivers’ trade union, which represents 96% of the train drivers, said the government’s proposed minimum service levels won’t work.

Mick Whelan, general secretary for ASLEF, said: “We know that this Tory government – in disarray as it is after crashing the economy – is determined to drive down wages and do everything it can to prevent ordinary, decent, hard-working people protecting their pensions, their terms & conditions at work, and their pay.

“That’s why Liz Truss is determined to try to make industrial action ineffective.

“The trouble is that Truss doesn’t understand the way the railway works. The train companies don’t want to run minimum service levels because they know it’s a stupid idea. What happens when 100% of passengers try to get on 40% minimum service level trains? And the rolling stock will, next day, be in the wrong place. Which will mess up the normal timetable.”

The Transport Strikes Bill, also known as the Minimum Service Levels Bill, comes as other industries are also striking over pay and conditions, including those at Royal Mail, BT, and Openreach.