Union leaders have condemned a government threat to make strikes on the railways illegal unless a minimum number of staff work during a walkout.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said the government would want to require a minimum number of staff to work during transport strikes to protect freight shipments of essential goods including food and fuel.
His comments came as the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) balloted 40,000 staff across 15 train operating companies and Network Rail over pay, compulsory redundancies and changes to working practices.
If members voted to strike, the union claimed it could be the biggest rail strike “in modern history” and could bring the country “to a standstill”.
However, Shapps told the Sunday Telegraph that the government was considering bringing forth the pledge made in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto, stating: “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.
“We very much hope they will wake up and smell the coffee.”
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch 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.
“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.”
His comments were echoed by Unite general secretary Sharon Graham, who said the union would confront “head on” any attacks on the right to strike.
“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,” said Graham.
“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 ‘party gate’. If you force our legitimate activities outside of the law, then don’t expect us to play by the rules.”
The RMT said Network Rail has proposed cutting 2,500 safety-critical maintenance jobs which it claimed could make rail accidents more likely and lead to “trains flying off the tracks”.
It has also claimed that staff at train operating companies have been subject to pay freezes, threats to jobs and attacks on their terms and conditions.
The ballot closes tomorrow (24 May) and if members vote to strike then industrial action could begin in June.
Lynch said last month: “Train operating companies have praised our members for being key workers during the pandemic but have refused to keep staff pay in line with inflation and soaring living costs. As a result, thousands of railway workers have seen their living standards plummet and have run out of patience.
“The way for trade unions to effectively take on the cost-of-living crisis is to stand up for their members at work and take industrial action when employers are not moved by the force of reasoned argument.
“A national rail strike will bring the country to a standstill, but our members’ livelihoods and passenger safety are our priorities.”