Tensions between the UK government and trade unions are rising again, with rail workers set to strike on the eve of the Conservative party conference as unions launched a legal challenge against new strikebreaking regulations.
The RMT union said on Tuesday that its members at Network Rail and 14 train operators would take action to bring services to an “effective standstill” on October 1, due to a continuing dispute over pay and working conditions.
The 24-hour strike will be the latest in a series of walkouts reflecting mounting unrest between unions, train operating companies and the government.
The action by the RMT, which represents 40,000 rail workers, will coincide with strikes by bus drivers in south-west England and with the first of two one-day walkouts by the train drivers’ union Aslef on October 1 and 5.
The strikes are expected to cause widespread disruption before and after the Tory party conference, which is scheduled to take place in Birmingham between October 2 and 5.
The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, representing workers in the transport and travel industries, is also expected to announce new strike dates in the coming days.
Mick Lynch, RMT secretary-general, said transport workers were “sending a clear message” that “working people will not accept continued attacks on pay and working conditions at a time when business profits are at an all-time high”.
The government, which sets the rail industry’s annual budgets, and train companies argue that significant pay rises can only be afforded if unions accept sweeping modernisation, such as changes to working patterns.
“[Rail sector] revenue is still around 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, no business can survive that scale of upheaval without implementing change,” the Rail Delivery Group said.
The industry body said the strikes would “hugely inconvenience” passengers, including people travelling to the London Marathon on October 2.
Separately, the union Unite, which represents workers at Felixstowe, the UK’s biggest container port, has already set dates for a week of fresh strikes, starting at the end of the month. Unite is also leading two weeks of industrial action at Liverpool’s port, set to end on October 3.
Since the rail disputes began earlier in the summer, only one pay deal has been agreed when a small number of TSSA members accepted a 4 per cent rise from Network Rail.
One union executive welcomed the recent appointment of Anne-Marie Trevelyan transport secretary, who met Aslef boss Mick Whelan last week — a marked departure from the approach of her predecessor Grant Shapps who refused to meet union bosses.
Meanwhile, the Trades Union Congress said on Tuesday that 11 of its member unions had launched a legal challenge against new regulations that are designed to stop workers taking effective strike action, by allowing employers to hire agency staff to plug the gaps.
The unions are applying for a judicial review of the regulations, arguing that they are unlawful because ministers failed to consult unions as required at their inception, and that they violate fundamental trade union rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The new rules, which are also opposed by the recruitment industry, were rushed on to the statute book earlier in the summer as the government sought to forestall a wave of strike action.
Ministers said the regulations were needed to “minimise the power of union bosses” and prevent “militant” unions shutting down vital public services. But Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said the government was attacking the fundamental right to strike “in broad daylight”.
Rail employers said the new rules would make little difference to strike disruption, since agency workers could not replace skilled employees at short notice.