Plans for minimum service levels during rail strikes could worsen labor relations and outcomes for passengers, train operators told lawmakers, while unions said the proposed laws were a “recipe for disaster”.
Legislation that would force some staff to work during strikes is before Parliament, sponsored by business secretary Grant Shapps.
Questioned by the transport select committee, Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, said the proposals in the strikes (minimum service standards) bill were “not going to work”. He said the bill, now in the House of Lords, would leave employers in the “envious position” of having to fire workers who refused to break a strike.
“It will be unsafe,” Lynch said. “Recruiting people to run your own picket lines and operate complex signaling systems or drive a train is a recipe for disaster.”
The measures contained in the bill would give ministers powers to decide minimum service levels during strikes in parts of the public sector, including schools, health and emergency services, as well as the railway.
Railway bosses and union leaders told MPs that in many places a significant proportion of staff in different parts of the railway would be required to work, even to operate a small number of trains.
Managers of the train operators said it was unclear which service they were expected to operate, whether priority routes or a proportion of the schedule.
Jamie Burles, managing director for Greater Anglia, said the plans could exacerbate problems plaguing industrial relations today, with unions still in dispute after nearly a year of strike action.
He said it would be “incredibly important to have absolute clarity on the policy and the legislation and the requirement for employers and employees… [or] one of the unintended consequences would be more conflict or strain in the relationship.”
Tom Joyner, managing director of Cross Country Trains, said he did not know of anyone in the rail sector who had asked the government to introduce legislation on minimum service levels.
Lynch said any minimum service laws Shapps referred to in Europe were “enforced in breach”, and have led to more wildcat strikes and “novel forms” of action such as strikes and sit-ins.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, said the government was seeking to introduce “something fundamentally different” that did not exist in other democracies, “that affects the right to strike.”
He said it would violate human rights, but it would also be a security issue: “Forcing people to go to work when their colleagues are not at work will put pressure on them that will make it inherently unsafe.”
Lynch said no one yet knew how it might work, and “the people in charge” seemed to have “the slightest idea”, adding: “It will poison industrial relations. If they fire the communicators, we will be in absolute crisis, it will be a permanent interruption.
“We will have a P&O situation where everyone will be fired, because they won’t break their own strikes… We will have a default strategy, because it is an unfair law.”