Could the Government Ban Strikes?

It's not just a lefty conspiracy – there's a real chance the government will try to break the rail unions

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28 January 2017, 12:15am

It would be foolish to say an end is in sight. But industrial tensions have been scaled back on Southern – Britain's worst performing railway – for the first time in a year. After five days of total shutdown, drivers' union Aslef has suspended its strikes and overtime ban pending ongoing talks brokered by the TUC. This epic battle over the de-skilling of conductors and the expansion of driver-only trains could – and that's still just a could – be resolved by a dose of good, old-fashioned industrial relations. 

Both drivers and conductors remain in dispute, but the irate commuters who urged Aslef to call the strike off before new talks have finally got what they wanted. With reports this week that Southern could be stripped of its contract, there could be vindication for those who always said both sides were equally to blame. 

But this is unlikely to appease the right wing press, for whom workers have always been depicted as the real enemy. As talks between unions and rail bosses resumed on Monday, the Evening Standard splashed with the headline: "LONDON WANTS CURBS ON RAIL STRIKERS". The article referred to an Ipsos Mori poll which asked whether train drivers should "have their right to strike limited" or "be able to strike as any other industry". Sixty-two percent of Londoners said the latter. But the poll also found that support for limits on NHS staff, train drivers and teachers were all higher in the capital than in the country as a whole. 

The Standard is not the only paper to big up proposals to curb transport strikes. A Sunday Times editorial in December urged that the "ability of unions needs to be curtailed". Meanwhile, the Sunday Telegraph reported that Theresa May was facing a "backlash" from her own MPs because she would not introduce such laws herself.

On Tuesday, Croydon South MP Chris Philp proposed his "ten minute rule" bill – a piece of legislation suggested by a backbench MP – which would force workers to run a 50 percent service on strike days, and allow High Court judges to determine if they could go ahead at all.

Read more: How Did the Rail Union Become So Powerful?

Unsurprisingly, Philp's proposal was easily defeated. It would be simple then to forget all about it and go off into the horizon whistling the Internationale in celebration of a rare victory against the Tories and the bourgeoisie. But with media demands for strike bans and 120 Tories turning out for Philp's wacky backbench debate, it doesn't take a doom merchant to wonder if there's more yet to come. And perhaps it's time to consider that perhaps Philp isn't a wacky maverick at all, but a useful outrider laying the ground for yet another attack on our rights at work. 

It's not just lefty conspiracists saying as much. According to the Standard, ministers "say privately they are considering adopting the measure". Transport secretary Chris Grayling has refused to rule it out. It would hardly be surprising if his Department for Transport was keen: its passenger services director Peter Wilkinson is on record speaking of "breaking" unions and threatening "punch-ups"

The private rail companies aren't far off either. Southern used the same measures proposed in Philp's bill – the High Court and the argument that strike action must be "proportionate" – when it tried to get the drivers' strike declared illegal under EU law in December. 

But before we get ahead of ourselves, back to that poll. The Standard didn't mention it, but train drivers, NHS workers and teachers are already set to face an extra hurdle before they can strike – thanks to the 2016 Trade Union Act. Along with fire brigades and border controls, their strikes will be declared illegal if fewer than 40 percent of eligible voters give them their backing. That's on top of a 50 per cent turnout rule for all strikes. "These modernising reforms will ensure strikes only happen as a result of a clear, positive and recent decision by those entitled to vote," employment minister Nick Boles said at the time

Unions know the new rules will lead to fewer national walk-outs by nurses, teachers and local government workers. But the railways are a different kettle of fish. Privatisation limits disputes to one route, so any dispute will hit home harder. And a unique culture of rank-and-file organising means rail unions have bucked the trend of declining worker influence. Ballots typically see turnouts and majorities far in excess of the new thresholds: 78 percent of Southern conductors backed the current strikes, for instance.

But there are many within the labour movement who think we haven't seen the half of what might be coming to curb strike action. Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Ian Lavery has said Chris Philp MP's Bill was part of a "pincer movement" of Tories attacking workers' rights. Another rail union source has speculated that "ideologues in the Department for Transport or the Conservative party" could well have concluded that "thresholds haven't worked and we're going to have to ban strikes on railways and buses". 

One Department for Transport boss is on record speaking of "breaking" unions and threatening "punch-ups". 

But if there's such a conviction at the top, why would the government wait? Perhaps we should look to the very poll the Evening Standard cited that's supposed to tell us the public would be on board. Across Britain, it shows that only 37 percent would support restricting train drivers' right to strike – which could refer to what's already the law. Seventy-seven percent think unions are "essential to protect workers' interests", most think they don't have too much power, and most disagree with the assertion they're controlled by "extremists and militants". Introducing an effective ban on strikes would surely provoke outrage. But our lawmakers know there will always be less outrage if extreme policies are gradually eased into the public consciousness. 

Take the case of the emergency services: in 2013 Tory MP Tobias Ellwood called for them to be merged under a new homeland security department. Since then, the Fire Brigades Union has repeatedly raised concerns that fire crews are being expected to respond to medical emergencies despite not having sufficient training. If a full merger follows, banning fire and ambulance crews from striking would suddenly seem a lot less radical – because the police are banned already. 

You'd think the unions would welcome this week's news that Southern has defaulting on the "remedial" plan agreed with the DfT. Rail unions RMT, Aslef and TSSA all support renationalising the whole network. But those comments from the DfT's Peter Wilkinson have made them think it's all being driven from Whitehall. Re-nationalisation, which is reportedly being considered, could make things worse as well as better – in the short-term at least.

Southern, after all, is only the beginning of a rail dispute that's about to spread nationwide. The 2011 McNulty report recommends driver-only operation as "default" for Britain's railways. Merseyrail has already ordered trains without the capacity for guard-operated doors, and the new Northern franchise plans to roll out the same. If the determination of the rail unions forces a compromise over Southern, we should expect even more of an effort from bosses and ministers to ensure they never lose again.

@conradlandin