The shadow levelling up secretary, Lisa Nandy, has said she is on the side of both the public and workers as unions prepare to stage major strike action on the rail network in the coming weeks.
Nandy fell short of explicitly backing or opposing the planned industrial action during an interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, instead saying Labour wanted to avoid strikes.
Commentators have noted that members of the Labour frontbench have been conspicuously quiet on the issue, while the party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has said he supports the general right of workers to withdraw their labour, but believed the rail strikes should not go ahead.
Rail workers belonging to the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) will stage walkouts on 21, 23 and 25 June, with the effects also likely to disrupt many services on days when workers are not on strike.
Network Rail is drawing up contingency plans to enable some mainline services to run. The strikes, which will include most of its signalling staff as well as the onboard and station staff of 13 train companies, are expected to leave fewer than one in five services running, probably only between 7am and 7pm on mainlines.
The government has called the strikes “self-defeating”, saying they could drive more passengers away in the long term.
Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Nandy said: “We want to avoid the strikes and we’re on the public’s side on this. We’re also on the rail workers’ side and I was speaking to some rail workers on Monday just before I got on the train to come down to London.
“They’re dealing with the same pressures that everyone else is – the cost of food, the cost of soaring inflation rates, taxes going up, and they’re really struggling to make ends meet.
“They’re the people that we went out and applauded during the pandemic because they kept our services going and they’ve seen their pay in real terms attacked again and again over the last decade.”
She added: “I’ve stood with our rail workers just like I stood with junior doctors when they protested against the treatment that was being meted out to them by the government, and our nurses as well.
“The way that you create good public services is not to attack the people who run those services, is not to attack those people who work day in, day out in order to try and keep them going – the way you do it is to support them.”
A spokesperson for Nandy declined to clarify whether she supported or opposed strike action.
The RMT said it would be open to “meaningful proposals” that would guarantee no compulsory redundancies and address pay.
In the Commons, Boris Johnson described the strikes as “reckless and wanton”. The prime minister’s spokesperson also said strikes would drive people away from using the railways when passenger numbers were already down on pre-pandemic levels.
“It is a self-defeating approach which will do lasting damage to not just the railways but to rail workers,” they said.
The planned industrial action – after a ballot of 40,000 members across Network Rail and 13 train operating companies last month – was due to start on Tuesday 21 June and run on alternating days until the Saturday.
Compulsory redundancies among rail workers have not yet been threatened by either Network Rail or train operators, but as passenger numbers remain stubbornly below pre-Covid levels, companies are looking for up to £2bn in annual savings.
Many rail workers had their wages frozen during the pandemic and have not yet been offered a pay rise, with inflation at its highest for decades.
About 10,000 RMT members working for London Underground will also strike on 21 June, in a parallel dispute over jobs and pensions, bringing the network to a halt. The Unite union on Tuesday announced that about 1,000 members at Transport for London, including some tube staff, would stage a 24-hour walkout the same day, intensifying disruption.
This story was amended on 9 June 2022 to clarify Lisa Nandy’s position after her office contacted the Guardian.