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Rail strike: the government unveils controversial legislation

Today, the government unveils plans to change the law to allow businesses to supply agency workers in a bid to bridge staffing gaps during strike action. Ministers say the proposal, which requires parliamentary approval, would reduce disruption from strikes and provide companies with “the freedom to fill vital roles so that peoples’ daily lives remain uninterrupted.”

The government has also increased the damages cap for employers claiming against a union when a court deems a strike unlawful. For the largest unions, the maximum award will rise from £250,000 to £1 million.

Britain’s biggest rail strike in 30 years

The measure comes as rail strikes in Britain continue after talks over jobs, pay and conditions broke down on Wednesday with the union chiefs accusing Transport Secretary Grant Shapps of “wrecking” negotiations. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Grant Shapps has wrecked these negotiations by not allowing Network Rail to withdraw their letter threatening redundancy for 2,900 of our members.

“Until the government unshackle Network Rail and the train operating companies, it is not going to be possible for a negotiated settlement to be agreed.

“We will continue with our industrial campaign until we get a negotiated settlement that delivers job security and a pay rise for our members that deal with the escalating cost-of-living crisis.”

A survey by pollsters YouGov found public opinion divided, with 37 per cent supportive of the action and 45 per cent opposed.

With more than 40,000 rail workers walking out on Tuesday and just 20 per cent of services expected to run today, this week marks Britain’s biggest rail strike in 30 years.

Inflation will rise to 11%, warns Bank of England

Unions have said the rail strikes point to a “summer of discontent” with public workers and barristers advocating for industrial action over unaffordable living costs. On Thursday, the Bank of England said that the rate of inflation is expected to keep rising, estimating an 11 per cent markup in October this year.

“RMT members are leading the way for all workers in this country who are sick and tired of having their pay and conditions slashed by a mixture of big business profits and government policy,” Mick Lynch, secretary-general of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), said.

The RMT union is calling for wages to increase by 7 per cent, while employers have offered a maximum rise of 3 per cent.

Ministers are “living on another planet”

Unison, the largest trade union in the UK, has accused ministers of “living on another planet” over “talks of public sector pay restraint”. Jon Richards, assistant general secretary of Unison said: “Under-pressure health, care, school and council services desperately need staff to be given a pay boost that matches runaway prices.”

But Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has argued that trade unions are holding the UK to “ransom” by bringing vital public services and businesses to a halt. “Repealing these 1970s-era restrictions will give businesses the freedom to access fully-skilled staff at speed, all while allowing people to get on with their lives uninterrupted to help keep the economy ticking,” he said.

Meanwhile, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “Despite the best efforts of militant union leaders to bring our country to a standstill, it’s clear this week’s strikes did not have the desired impact due to more people being able to work from home. However, far too many hard-working families and businesses were unfairly affected by the union’s refusal to modernise.

“Reforms such as this legislation are vital and will ensure any future strikes will cause even less disruption and allow adaptable, flexible, fully skilled staff to continue working throughout.”

Final thought

By actioning controversial changes to the law, the government are not only undermining pay and working conditions but reducing rail workers’ bargaining power. Akin to the P&O scandal which replaced experienced workers and saw multiple safety failures, this new legislation will endanger public safety, diminish disputes and taint industrial relations.

Did the government learn nothing from the P&O scandal? Safety-critical roles require months of training. “In a very skills-short market, skilled workers, such as train drivers, are unlikely to be ‘on the bench’ and readily available,” Tania Bowers, Global Public Policy Director at APSCo said. Where will businesses find experienced rail workers at the drop of a hat?!

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