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Rail union RMT today issued a stern warning that they will mount fierce resistance to any attempt by the government to reduce their right to strike on the railways.
It comes after multiple unions, which are threatening a summer of walkouts, were warned today to back off or face tough new laws to curb strikes.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that ministers are looking at drawing up laws which would make industrial action illegal unless a certain number of staff are working.
Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary, said: ‘Any attempt by Grant Shapps to make effective strike action illegal on the railways will be met with the fiercest resistance from RMT and the wider trade union movement.
‘The government need to focus all their efforts on finding a just settlement to this rail dispute, not attack the democratic rights of working people.
HARD-LINERS: RMT leader Mick Lynch addresses the crowd as Recently sacked P&O workers and their supporters march from the local RMT building to the harbour entrance this month
‘Britain already has the worst trade union rights in Western Europe.
‘And we have not fought tooth and nail for railway workers since our forebears set up the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in 1872, in order to meekly accept a future where our members are prevented from legally withdrawing their labour.’
Mr Shapps told the Sunday Telegraph that the government hopes the unions ‘will wake up and smell the coffee’ and suggested that strikes could put more people off rail travel.
He also accused unions of going straight to industrial action rather than using it as a last resort, adding that railways were already on ‘financial life support’ because of the pandemic.
Referring to a pledge in the Conservative manifesto for minimum services during strikes, he said: ‘We had a pledge in there about minimum service levels.
‘If they really got to that point then minimum service levels would be a way to work towards protecting those freight routes and those sorts of things.’
More than 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) at Network Rail and train operators have been voting on whether to launch a campaign of industrial action over jobs, pay and conditions.
And unions have reacted with anger to Mr Shapps’ interview, just days before the ballot result set to bring the threat of a national rail strike closer.
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, which is also threatening industrial action in the same dispute, said: ‘What we are seeing here is desperate nonsense from the Tories who have chosen to attack working people in our union who kept the railways running every single day of the pandemic.
‘What the Government should be doing is putting in place measures to deal with the Tory cost of living crisis, including ensuring that wages keep pace with inflation.
‘It’s laughable to see Grant Shapps scampering off to drip poison in the ears of journalists instead of backing polices to put our railways front and centre of our economic recovery from Covid. He should be ashamed.
‘Frankly, the Tories can pass whatever law they wish to deny our members their fundamental rights – our union will defy their unjust and undemocratic laws every step of the way.
‘The difference between a slave and a worker is the latter’s ability to withdraw their labour.’
”Any attempt by Grant Shapps (pictured) to make effective strike action illegal on the railways will be met with the fiercest resistance,’ Mr Lynch said
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Ministers have spectacularly failed to deal with the cost of living crisis. Now they are trying to distract from their failure by picking a fight with unions.
‘The right to strike is crucial in a free society.
‘Threatening the right to strike tilts the balance in the workplace too far towards the employers. And it means workers can’t stand up for decent services and safety at work – or defend their jobs or pay.
‘We will fight these unfair and unworkable proposals to undermine unions and undermine the right to strike, and we will win.’
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: ‘Unite will confront head-on, and by whatever means necessary, any further attacks on the right to strike.
‘In Britain we already operate under the most restrictive labour laws in western Europe. A workers’ right to withdraw their labour is inalienable in any democracy worth its name.
‘This is a cynical, authoritarian move designed to protect corporate profits and has been wheeled out to satisfy the needs of short-term factional politics.
‘While corporations make billions and ordinary working people suffer, this Government chooses to attack the rights of British workers.
‘When P&O, a billion-dollar company owned by a foreign dictatorship, brutally sacked 800 British workers, they broke the law. The Government’s response was a fine.
‘When British workers threaten to defend their living standards in the face of a cost-of-living crisis not of their making, this Government threatens to take away their democratic rights.
‘We are now forced to put the Government on notice. Unite will not sacrifice the protection of our members’ jobs, pay and conditions on the altar of ‘partygate’. If you force our legitimate activities outside of the law, then don’t expect us to play by the rules.’
It comes as ministers urged union bosses to ‘be reasonable’ and spare the nation from rail strike chaos.
They insisted that if the unions went ahead, the Government would bring in legislation to prevent any repeat of a national rail shutdown.
That would mean outlawing any strikes that did not provide a guaranteed ‘minimum service’ to limit disruption to passengers. It could also make union leaders liable for damages if they failed to honour such a requirement.
Last night, a Government source admitted that a law could not be rushed through in time for any strikes this summer, but it would apply for any future industrial action. The source also pointed out that the Government had put £16 billion of taxpayers’ cash into the rail industry during the pandemic as passenger numbers plummeted.
The insider added: ‘We’d rather have sensible discussions, and we want the unions to be reasonable.
‘But unjustified, wide-scale rail strikes would make legislation inevitable to protect the public and supply chains.’
It comes amid fears that rail unions will stage the biggest rail strike in modern history this summer– starting as early as next month.
One rail union boss has even warned it would be the biggest industrial action since the 1926 General Strike.
There are already concerns that people could struggle to get to nearly 30 major sporting events and festivals, including the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, two England matches in the Uefa Nations League and Wimbledon.
Rail bosses are drawing up contingency plans to keep supermarket shelves stocked by giving freight services priority, and Boris Johnson is expected to discuss the threat with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps this week.
But the 40,000-strong Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union (RMT), which is expected to reveal the result of a ballot on strike action on Wednesday, claims its members have been subject to pay freezes and job threats.
The union says plans to cut 2,500 maintenance jobs to save £2.5 billion over the next two years could make accidents more likely – a claim denied by Network Rail.
Mr Lynch has admitted: ‘A national rail strike will bring the country to a standstill.’
However, he added: ‘Our members’ livelihoods and passenger safety are our priorities.’
The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), which represents Network Rail control room and maintenance workers, is also consulting its members on strike action.
General secretary Manuel Cortes has warned: ‘The disruption will be unparalleled.’
Ministers originally outlined plans to curb a national rail strike in 2019 after Mr Johnson’s landslide election victory, but put them on hold because of the Covid pandemic.
In a proposed Bill then, the Government said it would ensure minimum service levels were maintained during rail strikes. Both rail operators and unions would be obliged to sign up to a service guarantee that would apply during walkouts.
Any strike without a minimum service agreement would be unlawful. If a service agreement was not honoured, a strike would be declared unlawful, with the unions potentially subject to injunctions or damages.
A Government source said last night: ‘I think everyone will understand why, during the Covid pandemic, this was not a priority.
HARD-LINERS: RMT leader Alex Gordon’s sympathies were exposed in our story last week (pictured) Alex Gordon and protesters, including trade unionists, striking cleaners and ex P&O workers, assemble in Clerkenwell in front of the Marx Memorial Library, to march to Trafalgar Square and celebrate International Workers Day this month
‘But if the unions persist in jumping the gun and going now for unjustified strike action, it will become a priority and we will deliver it.’
When the idea was first outlined in 2019, then RMT leader Mick Cash branded it ‘a draconian measure which amounts to an attempt to ban transport workers from going on strike’.
He added: ‘Taking industrial action is a basic human right, and denying workers the ability to withdraw their labour has been the hallmark of hard-Right, authoritarian regimes.’
But Conservative MP Tom Hunt said last night: ‘What’s draconian is trying to hold the nation to ransom through entirely unreasonable and inappropriate strike action. I am sure that rail passengers and the general public will see this is absolutely necessary.’
The Department for Transport has previously stressed it wanted a ‘fair deal for staff, passengers and taxpayers’.
It warned that unless major changes were made to the railways following the pandemic, ‘we risk losing it for good’. A spokesman added: ‘We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a world-leading rail network.
‘Our Plan for Rail and massive infrastructure projects, including HS2 and the Integrated Rail Plan, are creating positive change, whilst we’re also overhauling the industry’s structure, ticketing systems and creating new green opportunities for rail freight. However, the pandemic has changed the railway for good with passenger numbers plummeting.
‘The Government stepped in and committed £16 billion of funding –nearly £600 per household to ensure its survival – but this is merely financial life support. Unless we action significant change soon, we risk losing it for good.’
The RMT ballot closes on Tuesday with the result expected on Wednesday.
What Great British summer? Chaos will hit airports, hospitals and universities alongside crippling rail strikes that could bring the country grinding to a halt
By Georgia Edkins for the Mail on Sunday
It is not only the railways that are set to be massively disrupted by strikes in the coming months.
Universities, airports and hospitals could be hit by walkouts so severe they threaten to grind the country to a halt.
From tomorrow, university students across the UK will face huge disruption to their degree programmes following two years of interrupted study in the pandemic.
Hundreds of lecturers will embark on a marking boycott which will see them completely down tools, leaving many students fearing they will not be able to graduate.
The strike action, orchestrated by the University and College Union, hopes to force vice chancellors to revoke pension cuts and also meet staff demands over pay and working conditions.
The boycott will see lecturers refuse to mark any final exams or coursework, and is set to disrupt more than 100,000 students.
Earlier this month, a third-year history student at the University of Nottingham, Lucia Botfield, feared she would not be able to graduate.
She said: ‘We’ve had about three months of uninterrupted teaching [during] our whole degree because of Covid and strikes – and it’s just annoying. They have told us nothing.’
Universities, airports and hospitals could be hit by walkouts so severe they threaten to grind the country to a halt (pictured) People wait inside Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport
Meanwhile, holidaymakers travelling through Heathrow this summer will have to prepare for delays and slower service, as the GMB Union is balloting for strikes to take place at the airport.
A number of British Airways ground staff and check-in desk workers have voted in favour of a strike that could cause chaos for travellers. The workers are demanding that a ten per cent cut – imposed during the pandemic – is reinstated in their pay packets.
GMB national officer Nadine Houghton said: ‘These workers are claiming back what they had robbed from them due to BA’s callous fire and rehire during the pandemic. BA forced our members into pay cuts during the pandemic, when they had little workplace power to fight back.
‘Now our members are back at work and staff shortages are hammering the company – it is their time to claim back what is theirs.’
In the next few days, HGV drivers represented by Unite union are set to stop delivering goods to almost 500 Co-ops across the country in a bid to secure better pay.
Around 330 workers employed by GXO, the logistics giant, are set to take 40 days of strike action between this month and August, meaning in-store shortages are almost certain.
Unite regional officer Kenny Rowe said: ‘Strike action will undoubtedly cause disruption to Co-op stores across much of the country but this dispute is entirely of GXO’s own making.
‘Even at this late stage, strike action and the ensuing disruption can still be avoided, but GXO has to make an improved offer.’
Hospitals may also be affected by the upcoming ‘summer of discontent’ due to the threat of strike action by hospital porters and cleaners in Lancashire who are part of Unison union.
Health workers employed by a private firm in Lancashire are voting over whether to take strike action to win the same pay and holiday rates as NHS colleagues.
Meanwhile, bin men and council administration staff across the country could also embark on a damaging summer shutdown.
Workers represented by Unite union, including those in east London’s Hackney and across Northern Ireland are already taking strike action over a 1.75 per cent pay offer set by the Local Government Association.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: ‘What use is 1.75 or 2 per cent on pay after more than a decade of attacks of pay and in the face of rampant inflation? These offers are not pay rises, they are pay cuts and Unite members are right to reject them.’