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‘If this was happening in other countries, it would be condemned’

Matt Trinder talks to RMT leader MICK LYNCH about the threat to our freedoms posed by the government’s strikes Bill and the problems facing the privatised rail industry

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch is on characteristically bullish form when asked about the Tory government’s widely condemned anti-strike Bill, which passed its final hurdles in the Commons on Monday night.

“I think everyone outside of Grant Shapps’s head is uncomfortable with this legislation. I’m not sure employers like it, and even business organisations don’t understand how it’s going to work.”

The Business Secretary claims the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which is expected to face stiff opposition in the House of Lords, is a “proportionate” response to the biggest strike wave to sweep Britain in decades.

But Lynch, head of the transport union which launched national industrial action across the rail network over jobs, working conditions and pay last summer, warns the move is an “attack on democracy.”

The legislation empowers bosses — and even Shapps himself — to force striking workers to break their own legal industrial action by providing an as yet undefined minimum service level during walkouts.

Any employees refusing to do so could be dismissed, and the union which represents them fined to the point of financial ruin.

“They’ll be able to direct and name individual workers that have to cross a picket line,” Lynch explains.

“If they don’t do that, that person can be dismissed, the unions can be fined very extensively and companies and service uses could even sue unions, which could destroy trade unionism.

“It’s not just the immediate effect of diluting strike action or attacking democracy and human rights which is wrong, it’s actually the practical outcomes on unions.

“That’ll make striking harder to do, but we’ll have to find other ways of taking industrial action, so I think it’ll actually entrench disputes and make them harder to resolve.”

He slams the “very thin bit of legislation,” which even hard-right militant Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised as “badly written” during Monday night’s debate, when ministers rushed the Bill through its final stages before MPs. 

“This condensed process isn’t allowing for proper consideration so people can reflect on it,” the RMT leader argues. “It’s a very thin bit of legislation which gives all power to Grant Shapps so that he can almost by diktat decide what’s going to happen in industrial disputes.

“Ultimately, they’ll be conscripting labour — it’s a big step which other Western democracies haven’t taken. If it was happening in other countries, it would be condemned, so it should be condemned here.”

A “mass movement of resistance is needed across the labour movement,” he stresses.

“All unions, whether they’re TUC-affiliated or not, need to fight back. All political parties that might call themselves progressives, including nationalists in Scotland and Wales, the Greens, maybe even the Liberals if they can get off their arses.

“It’s an attack on freedom. We need to explain to people that if they take these freedoms away, others such as the right to assemble or even protest to hold the government to account will be under threat.”

Lynch’s call comes as hundreds of RMT train drivers join their colleagues at Aslef in taking strike action across several train operating companies today.

RMT is currently consulting the latest pay offer from employers, but the proposal, already rejected by Aslef, is “extremely challenging and unlikely to see champagne corks popping” when put to members, Lynch warns.

“I can’t see that we could ever accept it. It’s all self-funded and dependent on a series of cuts to services and terms and conditions, but I have to wait for members to give their views on that.

“The reaction has been very strong, they feel the offer is completely unacceptable, some are calling for an immediate escalation of action — there’s no mood to give up or cave in.”

When asked what the biggest problem with the industry is, the union leader responds: “How long have you got?

“It’s privatisation and the fracturing of the organisation.

“We haven’t got a coherent railway policy and we haven’t got a coherent set of approaches to actually running trains on a day-to-day basis.

“You can see the crisis in Avanti West Coast, Transpennine Express and others, where they can’t run trains to timetables, they haven’t got enough staff while they’re pushing for thousands of redundancies and the funding model is completely broken.”

As per their government contracts, train operators were indemnified against losses during the Covid-19 pandemic, and this has continued during the current dispute. No passengers, no problem, as far as bosses are concerned.

“It’s a one way ticket to profit, and that gives them no incentive to run the railway properly because they get paid anyway, and no incentive to settle this dispute,” Lynch says.

“That’s a corrupt set-up in the broadest sense of the term. What we need is a publicly owned model, where the railway is run in the interests of people, the economy and the environment, not in the interests of Tory ideology, which is all about privatisation of public services.

“With this clique of hard-right militants, it’s top of their agenda, whether it’s the railways, the NHS, education — they fundamentally believe in privatisation and degrading our public services.”

The mindset, which has lead to more than a decade of austerity, is finally provoking a national fightback.

Today’s walkout by train drivers will also see tens of thousands of teachers, lecturers and civil servants down tools. 

It’s squeaky bum time in Downing Street. 

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