Unions slam Grant Shapps’ plans to block industrial action

Government plans for a minimum staffing requirement during rail strikes have been called “desperate nonsense”.

Unions reacted angrily to a Sunday newspaper interview by the Transport Secretary days before the election result which is expected to bring the threat of a national railway strike closer.

More than 40,000 members of Network Rail’s Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union and train operators have voted on whether to launch a campaign of industrial action on jobs, wages and conditions.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch told the PA news agency he expected support for the strikes when the election result was announced later this week.

RMT’s Mick Lynch said his union would not accept harmful pay and conditions (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“We demand job security and a guarantee of no mandatory layoffs, and we will not accept the imposition of prejudicial wages and conditions.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the Sunday Telegraph that ministers are considering drafting laws which would make industrial action illegal unless a certain number of employees are working.

Referring to a commitment in the Tory manifesto for minimum service during strikes, he said: “We had a commitment in there to 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 that sort of thing.”

In response, Mr Lynch said: ‘Any attempt by Grant Shapps to outlaw effective strike action on the railways will be met with the fiercest resistance from RMT and the wider labor movement.

2015 TUC Congress

Manuel Cortes described the Tory plans as ‘desperate nonsense’ (Rick Findler/PA)

“The government must focus all of its efforts on finding a just settlement to this rail dispute, not attacking workers’ democratic rights.

“Britain already has the worst trade union rights in Western Europe.

“We haven’t fought tooth and nail for railroad workers since our ancestors formed the Amalgamated Society of Railroad Servants in 1872, to meekly accept a future where our members cannot legally retire from their jobs.

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, which is also threatening industrial action in the same dispute, said: ‘What we see here is desperate nonsense from conservatives who have chosen to attack our union workers who have kept the railroad running every day of the pandemic.

“What the government should be doing is putting in place measures to deal with the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis, including ensuring wages keep pace with inflation.

“It’s laughable to see Grant Shapps rushing to pour poison into journalists’ ears instead of supporting policies to put our railways at the center of our post-Covid economic recovery. He should be ashamed.

2019 TUC Congress

Frances O’Grady of the TUC said the government was trying to fight with the unions (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“Frankly, the Conservatives can pass any law they want to strip our members of their basic rights – our union will challenge their unjust and undemocratic laws every step of the way.

“The difference between a slave and a laborer is the latter’s ability to withdraw his labor.”

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Ministers have failed spectacularly in dealing with the cost of living crisis. Now they are trying to distract from their failure by fighting with the unions.

“The right to strike is crucial in a free society.

“Threatening the right to strike tips the balance in the workplace too much in favor of employers. And that means workers cannot defend decent services and workplace safety – nor can they defend their jobs or their wages.

“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 any means necessary, any further attack on the right to strike.

“In Britain, we already operate under the most restrictive labor laws in Western Europe. The right of workers to retire from work is inalienable in any democracy worth its salt.

“This is a cynical and heavy-handed move designed to protect corporate profits and was rolled out to satisfy short-term factional political needs.

“While businesses are making billions of dollars and ordinary workers are suffering, this government is choosing 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 standard of living in the face of a cost of living crisis for which they are not responsible, this government threatens to strip them of their democratic rights.

“We are now obliged to put the government on notice. Unite will not sacrifice the protection of our members’ jobs, wages and conditions on the altar of partygate. If you force our legitimate activities outside the law, don’t expect us to play by the rules.

The RMT poll closes on Tuesday with the result expected on Wednesday.