Train strike 2022: should strikes be supported by law in a society so dependant on travel services or is it time for change?

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) launched a ballot of its members in May 2022 on taking strike action. This ballot saw over 40,000 Network Rail workers and 15 train operating companies ballot for strike action. This campaign is said to not be about Train Drivers pay, the RMT represents workers such as Customer Hosts, Ticket Office staff and Electrical Control Operatives. Network Rail’s proposed cuts are said to compromise the safety of workers and customers with their plan to reduce its maintenance workforce saving £100m a year.

RMT have reported that 71% of those balloted took part in the vote and 89% of those voted in favour of strike action. RMT have launched a 3-day national strike action on 21, 23 and 25 June 2022. This will see over 50,000 railway workers walkout and the country’s railway network will be shut down. The RMT Press Office on 12 June 2022 stated, “Railway workers voted overwhelmingly for strike action in defence of their jobs and for a pay rise that deals with the rising cost of living. It is insulting to them to suggest they do not understand the issues that affect their daily lives or cannot make a democratic decision by themselves”.

On 13 June 2022 Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary said he was drawing up plans to ban overtime for striking rail staff and to bring in agency staff to cover. The Department for Transport have said that allowing overtime will allow them to put right the damage they have done. The proposed ban would see striking result in a full and absolute loss of pay. The ban on employers taking on agency workers during strikes was introduced under Tony Blair and Grant Shapps plan is to remove this legal restriction.

There is no legal right to strike but section 226 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (‘the Act’) states the requirement of ballot before action by trade unions. Workers have rights during industrial action pursuant to section 238A of the Act. These rights include the right to not be dismissed for action which is a result of a properly organised ballot following a detailed notice about the industrial action has been given to the employer at least 7 days before it begins.

If strikes of this nature were unable to be organised, organisations such as the Trade Union Congress (TUC) state that cuts to the maintenance workforce would put passenger’s lives at risk. The TUC have said that track maintenance was essential to avoid fatal accidents and although we have one of the best safety records in Europe, crashes such as Stonehaven in 2020 and Salisbury last year have raised concerns. The government are concerned with the recovery of the railway since the pandemic but compromising safety should not be the most attractive option and in situations like this, it is argued that strikes must continue.

Strikes have a massive impact on the wider economy in many different sectors. One example has been argued by Ministers in a letter entitled “impact assessment on the effect of industrial action”, which has warned potential strikers that there is a genuine risk the strikes could lead to empty supermarket shelves as it would disrupt the supply chain. A further example is the entertainment sector, events such as the cricket test match, Glastonbury festival and armed forces day are set to take place the same time as the planned strikes. This will threaten widespread travel disruption and affect the revenue generated by such events.

The current RMT strike is said to be about pay, jobs and pensions. The workers who risked their lives through the pandemic are now facing job cuts, a pay freeze, and attacks on their employment conditions. Inflation is currently at 11.1% and workers are struggling to meet living costs.

With the railway being a vital service that many in society depend on every day, it could be seen that RMT are holding the country to ransom knowing that the economic impact this will have on the country is not something the government will take lightly. The timing of this strike so soon after the pandemic considering taxpayers contributed £16bn to keep their jobs going during the pandemic is unfortunate. This article looks at the balance between the worker’s rights, society’s safety against the impact this strike will have on the public. We live in a democratic society and being able to strike is allowing the fight for a better, fairer and brighter future. If Grant Shapps’ plan to make industrial action illegal unless a certain number of staff are working goes ahead, this would allow the strike to continue and lessen the impact. There is clearly a balance to be struck between the law supporting a person’s right to strike and ensuring that the right to do so does not impact too much on society as a whole. We will have to wait and see if this balance can be struck.

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