Government plans for a minimum staffing requirement during rail strikes have been criticized as “desperate nonsense”.
Unions reacted angrily to a Sunday newspaper interview by the Transport Secretary just days before the vote’s outcome brought the threat of a national rail strike closer.
More than 40,000 Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union members at Network Rail and train operators have been voting whether to launch an industry action campaign on jobs, wages and conditions.
RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch told the PA news agency he expected support for the strikes when the result of the vote is announced later this week.
“We ask for job security and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies, and we will not accept the imposition of harmful wages and conditions.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told The Sunday Telegraph that ministers are considering drafting legislation that would make class actions illegal unless a certain number of staff are working.
Referring to a promise in the Conservative manifesto for minimum services during strikes, he said: “We had a promise there about minimum service levels.
“If they really did get to that point, then minimum service levels would be a way of working to protect those freight routes and that sort of thing.”
In response, Mr Lynch said: “Any attempt by Grant Shapps to outlaw an effective strike on the railways will be met with the fiercest resistance from RMT and the trade union movement in general.
“The government must concentrate all its efforts on finding a fair solution to this railway dispute, not attacking the democratic rights of workers.
“Britain already has the worst trade union rights in Western Europe.
“We haven’t fought tooth and nail for railroad workers since our ancestors established the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in 1872, to meekly accept a future in which our members cannot legally retire from their work.”
Manuel Cortés, general secretary of the Salaried Transport Staff Association, which is also threatening industrial action in the same conflict, said: “What we are seeing here is desperate nonsense from the Tories who have chosen to attack our union workers. that kept the railways running every day of the pandemic.
“What the government should be doing is putting in place measures to deal with the Conservative cost of living crisis, including ensuring that wages keep pace with inflation.
“It is ridiculous to see Grant Shapps run out and drip poison into journalists’ ears instead of endorsing policies to put our railroads front and center in our economic recovery from Covid. He should be ashamed.
“Frankly, Conservatives can pass any law they want to deny our members their fundamental rights – our union will challenge their unfair and undemocratic laws every step of the way.
“The difference between a slave and a worker is the ability of the latter to withdraw his work.”
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Ministers have failed spectacularly to deal with the cost of living crisis. Now they are trying to distract from their failure by fighting 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 towards employers. And it means that workers cannot stand up for decent services and job security, or stand up for their jobs or wages.
“We will fight these unfair and impractical 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 attacks on the right to strike.
“In Britain we already operate under the most restrictive labor laws in Western Europe. The right of workers to withdraw their work is inalienable in any self-respecting democracy.
“This is a cynical and authoritarian move designed to protect corporate profits and has been carried out to meet the needs of short-term factional politics.
“While corporations make billions and ordinary workers suffer, this government chooses to attack the rights of British workers.
“When P&O, a multibillion-dollar company owned by a foreign dictatorship, brutally sacked 800 British workers, it broke the law. The government’s response was a fine.
“When British workers threaten to defend their living standards in the face of a cost of living crisis they did not cause, this government threatens to take away their democratic rights.
“Now we are forced to put the government on notice. Unite will not sacrifice protecting our members’ jobs, wages and conditions at the altar of partygate. If you force our legitimate activities outside the law, then don’t expect us to play by the rules.”
The RMT vote closes on Tuesday and the result is expected on Wednesday.
Unison General Secretary Christina McAnea said: “For ministers to focus on undermining the fundamental rights of workers rather than addressing the cost of living crisis speaks volumes. They are only interested in finding scapegoats for their own economic failures.
“The right to strike is a vital line of defense to protect wages and protect services.
“The effect of removing it will be to drive down wages even further, make millions more struggle to pay their bills and push them further into poverty.
“Despite all the slogans about leveling up, it’s clear this government doesn’t want workers to be paid fairly and wants to tear down living standards.”