The spectre of a general strike in the UK has been raised after rail union boss Mick Lynch warned of escalating industrial action if a new Conservative prime minister moved to curb workers’ rights this autumn.
As yesterday’s rail strike shut down the national network, the secretary-general of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union warned of “the biggest resistance mounted by the entire trade union movement” adding he would campaign for the TUC to call a general strike if anti-union plans such as those supported by Conservative leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were enacted.
On Wednesday, RMT members at Network Rail and 14 train operators walked out alongside members of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) at Avanti West Coast. Both unions are planning strikes on 18 and 20 August, and the RMT announced a strike on London Underground on 19 August.
Meanwhile, train drivers’ union Aslef, announced further train strikes on 13 August that would mean drivers walking out at nine rail companies in a dispute over pay. Aslef members are striking at seven companies this weekend (30 July).
“We’ve been forced into this position by the companies, who say they have been driven to this by the Tory government,” said Mick Whelan, Aslef general secretary. “We want an increase in line with the cost of living – we want to be able to buy, in 2022, what we could buy in 2021.”
Calls for a general strike
Both of Boris Johnson’s potential successors have said they would ban strikes on essential public services such as rail. Truss has gone further in promising to legislate for minimum service levels on critical national infrastructure in the first 30 days of government.
She said on Tuesday: “I will take a tough line on trade union action that is not helping people get on in life.”
Responding to the comments, Lynch said: “The proposals by Liz Truss amount to the biggest attack on trade union and civil rights since labour unions were legalised in 1871. Truss is proposing to make effective trade unionism illegal in Britain and to rob working people of a key democratic right.
“If these proposals become law, there will be the biggest resistance mounted by the entire trade union movement, rivalling the general strike of 1926, the suffragettes and Chartism.”
The TUC did not immediately offer support for Lynch’s threat, emphasising that “every strike is a democratic process”, but added: “It’s clear this Conservative government is not on the side of working people.”
The RMT has rejected an 8% pay offer spread over two years from Network Rail, saying that given inflation increases it would amount to a reduction in wages. The union also opposes the changes to working practices attached to the pay “rise”, which include rules on redundancies and work-life balance, and rejects proposals to close ticket offices, amalgamate pay grades, and alter pensions arrangements.
Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines said: “Despite our best efforts to find a breakthrough, I’m afraid there will be more disruption for passengers this week as the RMT seems hellbent on continuing their political campaigning, rather than compromising and agreeing a deal for their members.”
Transport secretary Grant Shapps, continued the government’s hands-off approach to the dispute, ruling out meeting unions to break the deadlock, saying he was “not the right person to be in the room negotiating”.
Meanwhile, the Labour leader Keir Starmer yesterday sacked shadow transport minister Sam Tarry who joined striking RMT workers at Euston station. Labour sources said he had broken collective responsibility by making statements about pay and inflation that were not party policy.