Government and the trade unions are on course for a major battle over the right to strike, as a national strike ballot called by the RMT union over job cuts and closures passed earlier this month.
In response to the vote, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps warned that the government could introduce new laws to limit strike action in the face of the ballot, which union leaders have described as an assault on civil liberties.
Why did the union call for a strike ballot?
One of two main unions which represent workers on the rail network, the RMT, launched a ballot of its members last month on taking strike action.
Over 40,000 railway workers on Network Rail and 15 train operating companies (TOCs) were balloted for strike action in what the RMT has called “potentially the biggest rail strike in modern history”.
The RMT has hit out at Network Rail’s intention to cut at least 2,500 “safety critical maintenance jobs” as part of a £2bn reduction in spending on the network.
They say railway staff have been subject to pay freezes, threats to jobs and attacks on their terms and conditions.
The government, which ultimately runs Network Rail, has said it is “overhauling the sector and moving it off taxpayer life support”.
The RMT has warned that a decision to scrap the vast majority of ticket offices could turn the railways into a “mugger’s paradise,” by reducing staffing levels and therefore security.
The strike decision also comes amid a cost of living crisis which has left workers across all sectors of the economy significantly worse off - with real-terms pay down as much as 6% compared with last year.
Discussing the ballot on BBC’s Today programme ahead of the vote, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said that pay has been frozen for three years while the most reent figures show inflation is at record levels.
He said: “Our members have had enough of that. We want a deal that provides us with job security, defends our conditions and gets us a pay deal.
Mr Lynch added: “The issue is that the railway companies under the direction of the Department for Transport and the Treasury want to cut 1000s of jobs from the railway. And we think that puts at risk safety on our infrastructure and accessibility for people using the system.
“They also want to rip up our terms and conditions that we’ve negotiated over the decades.”
Will there be a national rail strike?
Following a national ballot of members, railway workers have voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action across Network Rail and the train operating companies.
The union reports that 71% of those balloted took part in the vote with 89% voting in favour of strike action and only 11% voting against.
Speaking after the confirmation of the result, Mr Lynch: "Today's overwhelming endorsement by railway workers is a vindication of the union's approach and sends a clear message that members want a decent pay rise, job security and no compulsory redundancies.
"Our NEC will now meet to discuss a timetable for strike action from mid-June, but we sincerely hope ministers will encourage the employers to return to the negotiating table and hammer out a reasonable settlement with the RMT."
The RMT has previously said it is involved in regular discussions with Network Rail and operating companies, but that they have shown no willingness to compromise on a number of key issues.
Mr Lynch said: “They have made it very clear to us that they wish to shut virtually every ticket office on the network. They wish to cut back on catering, they wish to cut back on station staff, perhaps even bring back driver-only operation as a part of their schedules. And Network Rail have indicated that they are going to slash the maintenance regimes; they’ve already told us that.
“And they’ve got no interest in giving us a pay rise that matches the rising cost of living in this country.
A union source told NationalWorld that based on discussions with members they felt there was a strong likelihood of the ballot passing in much of the country.
However, there are some concerns about reaching thresholds in parts of the country.
As the ballot is split between a number of different operators, the RMT would likely call strike action in any area which votes ‘yes’ and meets the threshold unless a deal with the company is reached.
The introduction of thresholds, which mean strike action can’t be taken unless a ballot receives a majority of votes and reaches a turnout threshold of 50%, has been criticised as a means of suppressing union activity.
What has the government said about strikes?
In an interview with the Telegraph, transport secretary Grant Shapps described plans to pass laws which would put in place minimum service levels on the rail network in order to prevent effective strike action.
This was a pledge in the Conservative’s 2019 manifesto, and Shapps warned that the measure could be implemented, “as a way to work towards protecting those freight routes and those sorts of things”.
The comments have been taken as a threat against the right to strike at a time when trade unions are becoming more active as a response to the cost of living crisis.
Mr Lynch described the proposals as “a further clamp down on civil liberties, while a number of trade unions bosses have also voiced concerns.
General secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, said that the government is trying to “distract from their failure” to deal with the cost of living crisis by “picking a fight with the unions”.
She said: “The right to strike is crucial in a free society.
“Threatening the right to strike tilts the balance in the workplace too far towards the employers. And it means workers can’t stand up for decent services and safety at work – or defend their jobs or pay.
“We will fight these unfair and unworkable proposals to undermine unions and undermine the right to strike. And we will win.”
When will the strikes take place?
Following the succesful vote in favour of industrial action, no dates have yet been set for the strike.
If a national strike is to take place, the union’s will give two week’s notice.
Union bosses had warned that industrial action could begin “as early as June,” but talks are still ongoing between the union and National Rail.
As well as Network Rail, the following companies have voted for strike action and action short of strike: Chiltern Railways, Cross Country Trains, Greater Anglia, LNER, East Midlands Railway, c2c, Great Western Railway, Northern Trains, South Eastern Railway, South Western Railway, Transpennine Express, Avanti West Coast, West Midlands Trains.
Balloted workers on the GTR (including Gatwick Express) line voted in favour of action short of strike.
No dates for a strike action in relation to this ballot have been set as yet, though there are a number of individual strikes scheduled across the country separate to it.
The RMT has also announced its intention to call a tube strike on the Jubilee weekend in London.
Staff have threatened to walk out of Euston and Green Park stations on Friday 3 June.
It is thought that those two stations have been specifically chosen for strike action as they are key for the influx of tourists who are expected to visit Buckingham Palace.
They feature on the Victoria, Jubilee and Piccadilly lines, although National Rail services at Euston will not be affected.
Staff have said that they are planning to strike due to allegedly suffering years of bullying from a manager.
It is believed that an investigation has been launched into the bullying accusations.