Laws to block industrial action could prompt longer rail strikes – union boss

Laws imposing minimum service levels during strikes could backfire on the Government by prompting workers to stage longer periods of industrial action, a union boss has warned amid a third consecutive day of rail disruption.

Aslef general secretary, Mick Whelan, has said legal limits on how many workers can take time off to picket could mean unions launching longer strikes to retain the same impact of day-long action under current rules.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is reportedly considering measures which could allow employers to sue unions and sack workers if they did not provide a certain level of service.

This comes as rail services are being crippled by a third consecutive day of industrial action, with about 12,500 train drivers from 15 companies striking over pay across the country on Thursday, following a 48-hour picket by the RMT.

Speaking at London’s Euston station beside several striking train drivers, Mr Whelan said that anti-strike laws, which could be introduced within days, are also unlikely to work and will make railways unsafe on strike days.

He added that unions would “of course” take the Government to court if it imposed such laws.

Mr Whelan told the PA news agency: “We’ve had minimum service levels in countries all over Europe for years (but) it’s never been enacted, because logistically it doesn’t work.

“I haven’t seen the legislation, but what I’ve garnered is that we would have to negotiate with each different company a minimum strike level.

Industrial strike
Mick Whelan joins Aslef members on the picket line at Euston station in London on Thursday (Aaron Chown/PA).

“If say the strike minimum levels were 20%, we were told in the past that we didn’t run full railway services during the fire brigade strike and the railway was unsafe, so we’d be doing something unsafe.

“Also, would we have to take more days action, to equate to the same level of effect that we have from one day now?

“Coming to the table will resolve this – threatening us with sacking or more pernicious legislation when we already have the worst trade union legislation in Europe, isn’t going to solve the issue.”

Industrial strike
Train drivers from the Aslef union striking at New Street station in Birmingham on Thursday (Jacob King/PA).

Mr Whelan added that the Government had not shown union leaders details of a £2,000 annual increase reportedly offered to train drivers, and accused rail companies of doing a “corrupt and immoral deal” with ministers by taking profits while refusing to give train drivers a pay rise for four years.

Due to strikes on Thursday, only 20% of trains are running, and several stations, including Birmingham New Street – the busiest in the country outside of London – had zero trains running.

Rail links to the UK’s two biggest airports have also been cut, with Gatwick Express and Heathrow Express shutting down.

Operators which have cancelled all their Thursday services include Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, East Midlands Railway, Northern, Southern, Southeastern, Thameslink and TransPennine Express.

Industrial strike
Trains stored at a sidings in Ely, Cambridgeshire, as train drivers from the Aslef union strike (Joe Giddens/PA).

Areas where trains are running on Thursday include: Wales; the Central Belt, Fife and the Borders of Scotland; and parts of the South Western Railway network.

Services will also operate on London Overground and the Elizabeth line.

The RMT is staging another 48-hour strike from Friday in its bitter dispute over jobs, pay and conditions, and the union’s general secretary Mick Lynch has warned that industrial action will continue beyond May unless a reasonable offer is made.

Industrial strike
Mick Lynch, left, has warned that rail strikes will continue beyond May unless the Government makes a reasonable pay offer (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

New TUC leader Paul Nowak has written to the Prime Minister calling for an urgent meeting to discuss the industrial disputes including those on the railways, in the NHS and the civil service and called for a change in Government direction, saying ministers should open pay negotiations with unions.

Mr Sunak has said that his Government’s door is always open for dialogue.

Talks are due to be held next week in another attempt to find a settlement.