UK unions’ ability to strike on transport network faces curbs

Ministers will seek to hamstring trade unions’ ability to bring the UK’s transport network to a halt with new legislation on Thursday enforcing a “minimum service level”, even during industrial action.

The government said the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which will deliver on a 2019 Tory manifesto pledge, would mean a certain level of provision having to run during walkouts on the transport network.

“This will allow passengers to go to work, attend school and make vital medical appointments and businesses to continue to grow the economy,” it said, citing estimates from economists that rail strikes in June alone cost the economy almost £100mn.

It added that the law would “mean businesses and passengers are no longer disproportionately and unfairly hit in the pocket” by striking workers.

Liz Truss cited the legislation in prime minister’s questions on Wednesday as she accused the opposition Labour party of being soft on unions. “Hardworking people and businesses should not be held to ransom by strike action,” she said.

Under the new arrangements, expected to take effect next year, train operators would specify the workforce required to meet an adequate service level during strikes. Unions would then have to take reasonable steps to ensure enough staff were at work to deliver that.

If any “specified staff” walked out, they would lose their protection from automatic unfair dismissal.

The Central Arbitration Committee, an independent body, would determine the minimum number of services if employers and unions could not reach an agreement.

Although the bill will set out the legal framework for “minimum service levels”, details of how they will apply will be decided only after a public consultation.

Unions criticised the legislation, with the RMT calling it a “draconian attempt to clamp down on the fundamental human right to strike”.

The row between the RMT and Network Rail also deepened on Wednesday, as the infrastructure operator rejected claims it had performed a U-turn on a pay offer to staff.

Network Rail said an offer of an 8 per cent pay rise over two years, and no compulsory job losses until 2025, remained on the table. But it warned that it was pushing ahead with changes to working practices and about 1,850 redundancies.

The RMT has also extended a fresh round of industrial action. Its members will walk out across Network Rail, 14 train operators and London Underground and Overground on November 3. They will stage a further strike at Network Rail and the train operators on November 5, and on Network Rail only on November 7.

The launch of the legislation is timed to coincide with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s address to the TUC Congress, the annual gathering of the UK’s trade union movement, in Brighton on Thursday.

The government wants to highlight the close links between Labour and the unions, which give the party millions of pounds in funding every year.

But Starmer has sat on the fence in the recent spate of industrial action on the railways. Extracts of his speech released on Wednesday evening did not mention the forthcoming walkouts.

Meanwhile, the transport secretary on Wednesday announced a delay to the government’s railway reforms as she ruled out presenting a Transport Bill in this session of parliament.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan told the House of Commons transport select committee she had “lost the opportunity” to bring forward the bill.

The legislation would have included plans for the biggest shake-up of the railways in a generation through the creation of a new public body to oversee infrastructure and train services.

Trevelyan said the reforms would not be ready by early 2024 as expected and raised the prospect of changing parts of the plan first unveiled by her predecessor, Grant Shapps, in spring last year.

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