The Tories Are Trying to Cripple Rail Workers’ Ability to Strike

On Thursday, the Conservative UK government published a new bill that would impose draconian restrictions on rail workers’ right to strike — aiming to punish rail unions for their recent militancy and make future strikes as difficult as possible.

A rail worker picket line outside Euston Station in London on October 5, 2022. (Justin Tallis / AFP via Getty Images)

On Thursday, as the Tories continued their implosion, the British government also published its proposed Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.

Ministers have been briefing that such bills are common through Europe — citing the examples of France, Spain, and Germany, all of which have minimum service level requirements during strikes. It’s true that other countries have these rules, but they sit within a different industrial-relations framework.

In France, the right to strike is protected by law. Unions may strike at any time. The country has no equivalent of the UK’s statutory restrictions on strikes, no mandatory pre-strike ballots, no ban on secondary action, no insistence that strike votes are held by post, no turnout requirement banning strikes unless 50 percent of eligible workers vote, etc.

Even in France, it should be noted, minimum service level laws were highly controversial. The minister who introduced them, Bruno Retailleau, was for twenty years a member of Philippe de Villiers’s far-right Movement for France — the equivalent in French politics of Nigel Farage.

How the UK’s Transport Strikes Bill would work is by compelling transport unions, in advance of any intended strike, to enter into negotiations with the employer about what levels of service would be appropriate in the event of that strike.

If the two sides were unable to conclude that negotiation with an agreement, they would have to apply to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC), which would listen to both sides before imposing a minimum service level. The CAC would be expected to say that in a rail strike, for example, 50 percent of all services would have to be provided, or 70 percent, or 90 percent.

In setting whichever figure the CAC thought just, the Act would compel the members of the Committee to apply a checklist of factors, including:

(d) the importance of ensuring that people aged under 17 are able to receive education;

(e) the importance of ensuring that people are able to travel to and from their place of work or education;

(f) the importance of avoiding damage to the economy.

All the factors in the list are, in effect, arguments for insisting that highest possible minimum service levels must continue during a strike. The CAC is not permitted to consider public support for the strike, even if that is overwhelming. Nor would the CAC be allowed to consider the right to strike, or the right to join a union. Nor could it consider any arguments by the union that, for example, strike was necessary in order to protect the long-term viability of the rail network from privatization.

The bill also permits the government to change the list of factors at any time in future, and without needing further parliamentary debate.

If the union failed to follow any of the above steps of negotiating with the employer, finding an agreement as to service levels with the CAC, or instructing its members to respect a minimum service obligation, then in practice, any strike would be unlawful. In the words of Mick Lynch, the plans enable employers to “conscript members into breaking their own strike” — a “complete suppression of freedom.”

This, it should be noted, comes on top of all the other existing anti-union laws, which would continue to remain in place.

The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto justified this measure by claiming that “Rail workers deserve a fair deal, but it is not fair to let the trade unions undermine the livelihoods of others.”

What has disappeared is that sense of a “fair deal” which rail workers, and indeed all workers, were promised. The manifesto also pledged to “extend the entitlement to leave for unpaid carers,” “crack down on any employer abusing employment law,” and “ensure that workers have the right to request a more predictable contract.” All of those leveling-up promises have been abandoned, as have pledges to prevent employers from refusing their workers’ sick pay or keeping workers’ tips. All measures of improvement have been abandoned. All that remains is anti-union menace.

In reality, the proposed bill serves two purposes. First, it proposes to punish the rail unions in particular for having struck and to make it as difficult as possible for them to strike in future. It mandates officials of the transport unions to play a role in policing their members, preventing them from striking, and ensuring that no equivalent figure to Mick Lynch — i.e., a rail union leader who supports strike action — could ever emerge again.

It also sets a template for future legislation: a further set of rules, covering all workers in Britain, with the intention of preventing them from striking effectively. The purported justification of the bill is to protect customers’ safety and convenience, but any group of workers who strike face potentially the same argument. If the government succeeds in shackling the rail unions, plainly firefighters, power workers, teachers — indeed every remaining group of organized workers — will be next in their sights.

The effect of the government’s petty-minded and authoritarian threat is to raise the stake in the rail workers’ strike. They are no longer simply fighting for the principle that their pay should keep up with inflation, or to protect the industry from privatization. They face a government determined to shackle them, and all other workers, for a generation.

At the time of writing, that government has the support of just 14 percent of all British voters. It is up to the rail workers to speak for the large majority of us.