Liz Truss has published controversial plans to make sure transport workers provide a minimum service level when they strike, ahead of a speech by Keir Starmer pledging to repeal all the Tories’ new anti-trade union laws.
As the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union warned of a new wave of rail strikes all winter, Truss brought forward a new bill to ensure that transport services keep running during strike action.
Under the plans, a minimum service level must be in place during transport strikes, otherwise the unions will lose legal protections from damages. Employers will specify the workforce required to meet an “adequate service level” and specified workers who still take strike action will lose their protection from automatic unfair dismissal.
Truss claimed it would stop people and businesses being “held to ransom by strike action which has repeatedly crippled our transport network this year”.
But Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said it undermined the right to strike and was “a naked attempt to stop transport workers taking action for better pay and conditions”. Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, said it was a “cynical piece of legislation that outlaws effective legal industrial action on our railways”.
Train workers are to stage fresh strikes next month on 3 and 5 November in the long-running dispute over pay, jobs and conditions but the new strike laws will not be in place until next year at the earliest.
Starmer will tell the TUC in a keynote speech on Thursday that Labour would “oppose and repeal” all new anti-strike measures brought forward by the Tories.
He will refer to a tape leaked to the Guardian revealing the prime minister “thinks working people lack ‘skill’ and ‘application’ … that your members don’t ‘graft’ hard enough. It’s delusional. It’s insulting”.
Starmer will also promise to scrap Truss’s threatened anti-strike laws. “If they bring forward further restrictions on workers’ rights or the right to strike, we will oppose and we will repeal. We will meet their attacks with hope,” he will say.
Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, was at the TUC conference on Wednesday, telling delegates that Truss was lashing out at trade unions “in a desperate bout of scapegoating for her failed premiership”.
“It wasn’t working people who crashed the economy, it was her. It was Tory MPs who egged her on to pursue her dangerous and destructive experiment on the British people. If she wants to see a real militant who has wrought damage on Britain, she should look no further than the mirror,” she said.
However, trade union leaders issued a warning to Labour on Wednesday that they wanted the party to go further and back workers taking part in a wave of strikes not seen for decades this winter.
Starmer is expected to face questions from union leaders after his speech about whether Labour will commit to raising public sector pay in line with inflation and allow shadow ministers to show solidarity on picket lines.
Rail workers, postal workers, BT staff, dockers and many others are already taking strike action, while hundreds of thousands of health workers, as well as teachers, university staff, ambulance drivers and civil servants, are all balloting for strike action this and next month.
One of the biggest strikes of the year will be held on Thursday when Royal Mail workers, BT staff and Openreach engineers from the CWU walk out in separate disputes over pay and conditions.
Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, used her speech at the TUC congress to call on Starmer and Labour to make clear they stand with workers in strikes this autumn, asking him: “Whose side are you on?”
The leader of Labour’s biggest union financial backer told the TUC conference that she was asking that Labour “do not stand on the sidelines and play this safe”.
Graham said that while there was clear water between Labour and the Conservatives, she was calling on Starmer’s party to “be bold, be on the side of workers” and “stop apologising for sticking up for workers on strike”.
She said there was already a party to represent the interests of business: the Tories.
A Unite and CWU motion demanding more coordinated strike action was passed on Wednesday at the conference, potentially leading to hundreds of thousands of workers out on strike on the same day.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS union, which is not affiliated to Labour, echoed Graham’s message to the Labour leader. “Keir Starmer’s coming tomorrow, he’s going to get questions, so my question to him is: we’re balloting, does he agree with us that public sector workers should have an inflation-matching pay rise, and there shouldn’t be job cuts?” he said, adding: “He’ll have to answer.”
He has called for coordinated strike action, suggesting that civil servants involved in the road network could go out on the same day as the RMT’s rail workers to cause maximum disruption and political pressure.
In a fringe meeting on Wednesday, he said it made sense to have a national day when all workers who have voted to strike were out at once, involving hundreds of thousands or more than a million workers.
Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, whose members have staged a succession of train strikes in recent months, supported the motion, saying more industrial action was to come from his union.
“We need to win our dispute. We need to bring it to a head,” he told the conference, saying he hoped for a “wave of industrial action” and “people on the streets in support”.
Most union leaders are keen to distance themselves from the idea that they could back a general strike bringing the whole country to a halt – last seen in 1926.
But Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, told a lunchtime fringe meeting that coordinated strike action could amount to a general strike no matter what the label was.
“When people come together and coordinate our actions, it’s a generalised strike,” he said.