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UK minister rows with rail unions ahead of mass strike ballot

Union leaders have warned of a concerted backlash if transport secretary Grant Shapps carries through on his threat to tighten industrial action laws to make rail strikes harder to carry out.

Shapps issued his warning on Sunday as the RMT prepared to unveil on Wednesday morning the results of a strike ballot of 40,000 members — which could pave the way for months of chaos across the rail network. Another rail union, the TSSA, has also threatened “a summer of discontent” if wage demands are not met.

The transport secretary told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper that the government could legislate to require that a minimum service operates during transport strikes — a pledge previously made during the Conservative election manifesto in 2019. This would make industrial action illegal if those levels were not met.

“If they [strikes] 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,” Shapps said.

The minister’s threat prompted a backlash from union leaders with Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, saying that the proposals would tilt the balance in the workplace too far towards employers.

“We will fight these unfair and unworkable proposals to undermine unions and undermine the right to strike. And we will win,” she said.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, said on Sunday that it would mount “fierce resistance” to any attempt by the government to reduce unions’ right to strike.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Shapps is meeting prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak this week to discuss the potential fallout from the RMT vote.

The transport secretary said the unions were “jumping the gun” and urged them to come to the table to discuss their calls for higher wages.

But he said union leaders had not recognised that a “seismic shift” was taking place with many workers able to work from home some or all of the time. In those circumstances, more strikes would only serve to put people off buying train tickets — worsening the finances of the railway network.

“I don’t want to be in a fight with the unions on this,” he said. “But I also recognise we need to work harder than ever before to make the railways an attractive way to travel, not least because . . . people have got the choice of literally not travelling and working from home.”

Shapps emphasised the fact that the government injected £16bn of taxpayers’ money into the railways to keep them supported during the Covid-19 pandemic of the past two years.


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