Minimum service levels: anti-strike law won’t work and could provoke more walkouts, unions say

Union and rail bosses warn minimum service level legislation could cause more conflict and disruption on railways

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Plans to introduce minimum service levels during rail strikes could have unintended consequences and lead to unplanned “wildcat” action, MPS have been told.

Union leaders claimed that the proposed bill is unworkable and would further sour relations with employers, while rail bosses said that without “absolute clarity” the law could lead to further conflict. 

The warnings came as peers in the House of Lords called for a number of key amendments to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill which could dilute the government’s planned anti-strike legislation. Among key changes demanded are ensuring any workers who don’t comply with a work notice on strike days do not face the sack or disciplinary action, and limiting the law's reach to England.

Union and rail leaders were questioned on the proposed legislation by the Transport Select Committee, with MPs told the requirement for staff to work even if they had voted legally to strike would be a “disaster”. They were also warned that the law would raise passenger expectations of service levels that could not be met.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, said: “It will be a complete pig’s ear. It is unsafe, it will not work and will not serve passengers.”

Lynch said the government did not understand how the railways operate and warned the law would spark “novel” forms of industrial action as well as wildcat walkouts. He added that if the law led to workers being sacked for striking, it would have huge consequences for the already stretched rail industry.  

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef, added: “In all my 38 years in this industry I cannot see how this can be done safely. There will be more action, and it will worsen industrial relations.”

Train operators also warned that the law could cause more problems. Jamie Burles, managing director of Abellio Greater Anglia, said the “overriding” objective of the industry was to avoid strikes and have good industrial relations.

He stressed the importance of having “absolute clarity” in the planned law about the requirements on employers and workers. “If we do not have that, one of the unintended consequences would be further conflict or stress between the relationship,” he said. 

Tom Joyner, managing director of Cross Country Trains, added that he had not been lobbying the Government to bring forward legislation on minimum levels of service.

Union leaders also said that setting a minimum level of service would raise expectations among passengers about how many trains would run during a strike. Mr Lynch said that would lead to anger when the “inevitable chaos” means there will not be a minimum level of service.

The RMT is currently considering an offer from train operators which could bring an end to industrial action which began last July and saw up to 80% of rail services cancelled at its peak. The union has already reached a settlement with Network Rail.

Aslef is still in dispute with train operators and has announced three more days of strikes in the coming weeks, including on the day of the FA Cup final.

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