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THE labour movement pledged to resist another “cynical and authoritarian” Tory assault on trade union rights today.
Working people must be free to organise as they are “not slaves chained to the oars of the galley,” unions stressed, while former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said attacks on workers’ rights during a cost-of-living crisis are “a story as old as the Tory Party.”
The furious backlash was prompted by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’s warning that ministers are considering the introduction of minimum service levels requirements on railways which would make industrial action illegal unless a certain number of staff are working.
His Cabinet colleague Nadhim Zahawi also confirmed that he wants to amend the Employment Relations Act which requires school bosses to allow staff attending disciplinary and grievance hearings to be accompanied by a union representative.
Employees should be given the option of bringing an external lawyer or a non-union rep instead, the Education Secretary said.
Mr Shapps told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper that unions should “wake up and smell the coffee” as staff walkouts could discourage people from travelling by train and disrupt the delivery of vital freight nationwide.
The former Tory Party chairman’s thinly veiled threat comes after rail unions said a “summer of discontent” was looming on the network, as staff pledge to fight job cuts, declining real-terms wages and deteriorating working conditions.
RMT, whose industrial action ballot of 40,000 members at Network Rail and 15 train-operating companies is set to close tomorrow, warned any attempt to make “effective strike action illegal will be met with the fiercest resistance.”
General secretary Mick Lynch said: “The government need to focus all their efforts on finding a just settlement to this rail dispute, not attack the democratic rights of working people.
“We have not fought tooth and nail for railway workers since 1872 to meekly accept a future where our members are prevented from legally withdrawing their labour.”
Slamming the proposal as “desperate nonsense,” TSSA head Manuel Cortes said ministers should be tackling soaring inflation and declining take-home pay instead.
“It’s laughable to see Shapps scampering off to drip poison in the ears of journalists instead of backing polices to put our railways front and centre of our economic recovery from Covid — he should be ashamed.
“Frankly the Tories can pass whatever law they wish to deny our members their fundamental rights — our union will defy their unjust and undemocratic laws every step of the way.”
A spokesperson for train drivers’ union Aslef told the Morning Star: “The right to withdraw your labour is a fundamental human right.
“Whatever this Tory government thinks, working people are not slaves chained to the oars of the galley.”
National Education Union joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted cautioned that plans to involve lawyers with internal school disputes will “inevitably result in a major increase in costs and bureaucracy for employers as well as redirecting school funding away from education.”
She said: “This has already happened with academisation.
“The result was escalation of disputes, increased paperwork, increased costs and more complex compromise/settlement agreements — the only winners are the lawyers.”
TUC leader Frances O’Grady agreed, saying: “Bringing cowboy firms and no win no fee lawyers into individual disputes will increase costs and take up more headteacher time.”
She accused ministers of distracting from their economic failures by “picking a fight with unions.
“The right to strike is crucial in a free society,” Ms O’Grady added.
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea condemned the government for being more interested in “finding scapegoats” for their own shortcomings than taking effective action.
“The right to strike is a vital line of defence to protect jobs, pay and services,” she said.
“The effect of removing it will be to drive down wages even further, make millions more struggle to pay their bills and push them into poverty.
“For all the sloganeering about levelling up, it’s clear this government doesn’t want workers to be paid fairly and wants to trash living standards.”
Union think tank the Institute of Employment Rights argued that the Tories were “engaged in class war against hard-working people and the unions who protect” them.
Senior vice-president Carolyn Jones told the Star: “It’s not strikes or unions that undermine our public services, but Tory ministers who continually favour profits over people.
“No amount of draconian measures can match the power of united workers.”
Sharon Graham confirmed that her union, Unite, would confront the plans “head-on.”
She said: “A worker’s right to withdraw their labour is inalienable in any democracy worth its name.
“This is a cynical, authoritarian move designed to protect corporate profits and has been wheeled out to satisfy the needs of short-term factional politics.
“If you force our legitimate activities outside of the law, then don’t expect us to play by the rules.”
Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party must finally “stand up and be counted,” she also demanded.
“It’s time for the political wing that was founded by and continues to be funded by our members to step up to the plate.”
Mr Corbyn backed the call, telling the Star that the party must commit to “re-empowering unions and ending the very restrictive legislation which currently exists on unions taking effective action.”
Industrial reporter @TrinderMatt
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