Minimum service levels – defend the right to strike

Mick Cash lays out the reasons for the Tories’ new assault on striking and how to beat it

In the run up to the 2019 General Election, the Conservatives, apparently not satisfied with the draconian restrictions imposed by their Trade Union Act 2016, made clear their intention to further curtail the right of transport workers to go on strike by introducing legislation which would require a minimum level of service on the railways during strikes.

We await further detail on the legislation, but it is apparent this constitutes nothing less than a brazen attack on the right to strike. The RMT is unequivocal in our opposition to Minimum Service Levels (MSLs) legislation. It will worsen industrial relations, risk passenger safety and conversely, is likely to lead to more industrial action being taken.

The Tories have made much of the fact that similar arrangements are in place in much of Europe – yet this ignores that in many cases, what is in place elsewhere is in fact already a requirement in the UK – for instance, notice periods in advance of industrial action and providing information to employers so that they can redeploy resources during strikes.

The Westminster Government’s approach also fails to recognise that across Britain, there are devolved authorities, such as the Scottish Government, with varying degrees of responsibility for the rail passenger services in their area, and who do not wish to conduct their industrial relations in this provocative and unreasonable manner.

In December 2019, when questioned on the Scottish Government’s view of the UK Government’s MSL proposals, the Transport Secretary Michael Matheson said: ‘I completely oppose that approach. The best way to deal with industrial relations is to nurture and cultivate positive industrial relations, rather than resorting to legislative changes and the punitive approach that the UK Government is intending to take. I assure the member that that is not in our thinking or in the approach that we will take’.

The RMT, of course, welcomes the Scottish Government’s opposition to MSLs and will seek to work with Ministers to oppose the legislation and make the case for why, given the Scottish Government’s opposition, the Westminster Government should not seek to make its MSL legislation apply to Scotland.

While the current plans relate only to the transport sector, there of course, remains a threat to the wider union movement that the government would seek to extend it to other ‘essential services’ in the future. Therefore, it is vital that we build a broad coalition within and beyond our movement to resist these measures from the outset.

At this year’s STUC Congress, I will be speaking at a fringe meeting with the Institute of Employment Rights and other allies about how the labour movement can work together to resist the Tory anti-union laws in Scotland.

Debates around MSLs are, of course, framed by the privatised and fragmented structure of our railways – a structure which is not fit for purpose. To mask the failure of privatisation, in early 2019, the Westminster Government commissioned Keith Williams, former BA CEO, to chair an ‘independent’ review of railways. Despite having a supposedly wide-ranging brief, he appeared to rule out full renationalisation very quickly.

For the last few years, the Scottish Government, unlike the rest of Britain, has had the power to put in a public sector bid to operate the Scotrail franchise, although it must still go through a franchise competition and compete with private operators. Rail passengers in Scotland have experienced years of disruption, delays, cancellations and overcrowding on Scotrail – the franchise which runs the majority of rail services in Scotland. Scotrail is currently operated by Abellio, a company owned by the Dutch state railway.

For over a year, Scotrail has been operating under a remedial plan due to its poor performance, and thankfully, in December 2019, under pressure from MSPs, the RMT, passengers and other campaigners, the Transport Secretary announced Abellio’s franchise would end in 2022, and not extended to 2025 as had been expected.

The RMT resolutely believes Scotrail’s failure to provide reliable rail service means that, when its contract expires in 2022, it must be run in the public sector and the Williams Review must give the power to do this without needing to go through a bidding process. Meantime, the RMT’s priority remains our members at Scotrail, who have faced massive difficulties due to Abellio’s poor management, not least because the company has cut 25% of its station staff since it took on the franchise. We don’t just need a public railway in Scotland – we need a fully accessible Scottish railway with a guard on every train and fully staffed stations across the network.

Mick Cash is the General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union.