On the Aslef train drivers’ union picket line at Victoria Station last January (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The Aslef train drivers’ union has called more strikes in its 18-month battle over pay and conditions. 

The action, which is set to begin on 2 December, is fragmented and wholly inadequate (details below). But it might attract the first use of the new anti-union laws.

Workers in Aslef have held 14 one-day strikes so far. And they are in no mood to back off. “Our members have spoken and we know what they think. Every time they vote for strikes it is a clear rejection of the offer that was made in April,” said Aslef’s general secretary Mick Whelan.

The bosses’ offer included a savage assault on working conditions and a below-inflation pay deal. This would have seen a 4 percent wage rise backdated for 2022 and a further 4 percent rise for 2023. They are a real-terms pay cut—and come after no pay rise at all since 2019.

It’s unfathomable why now the bosses would give in to what is effectively another one-day strike, although spread over a week at different companies. The overtime ban is an improvement on previous plans. But it’s probably not enough to see any movement from the 16 train operating companies involved and their coordinating Rail Delivery Group body.

The strikes are due to start the day after the RMT completes its ballot on the latest offer. If, as RMT leaders want, workers accept the poor deal, will they cross picket lines? 

It is probably too early for the Tories to use their new laws, but it’s not impossible. Ministers have already announced that the “minimum service” laws will mean that during strikes “the equivalent of 40 percent of the normal timetable can operate as normal.” 

On Tuesday in the Commons, Tory junior minister Kevin Hollinrake announced the details of how he wants unions to cooperate with mass scabbing. Stripped of their bureaucratic language, they are:

Employers issue “work notices” that say who they want to work to meet the 40 percent level. Trade unions must identify their members who are supposed to work.

Trade unions must send an “individual communication or notice to each member identified in a work notice to advise them not to strike during the periods in which they are required to work, as well as to encourage them to comply with the work notice.”

The union must instruct picket supervisors to use “reasonable endeavours” to allow the designated scabs through the line.

Unions must not do “other things” to undermine the strike-breaking.

This will finally be brought into effect “in accordance with the procedure set out in section 204 of the 1992 Act”. That allows the Tories to implement it “on such day as the secretary of state may by order appoint”—whenever they want. 

It’s a mortal threat to the unions and the right to strike. The TUC union federation has called an emergency one-day conference on Saturday 9 December to discuss the response. It says, “A massive 1 in 5 workers in Britain—or 5.5 million workers—are at risk of losing their right to strike”.

But worryingly, although the TUC has not announced full details, the conference is scheduled to last just three hours. It’s not clear whether unions can submit motions or will be restricted to debating an unamendable statement from the TUC leaders.

The conference has to put into operation the motion passed at its conference in September. It said, “We have no choice but to build mass opposition to the laws, up to and including a strategy of non-compliance and noncooperation to make them unworkable, including industrial action.”

If any employer uses the laws, all the unions must hit back. And the conference on 9 December has to organise for decisive action, not mere words and hoping Labour will reverse the laws.

The strike timetable

Saturday 2 December: LNER and East Midlands Railway

Sunday 3 December: Avanti West Coast, GTR-Great Northern Thameslink, West Midlands Trains and Chiltern Railways

Tuesday 5 December: Greater Anglia and C2C

Wednesday 6 December: South Western Railway (mainline and depot drivers), SWR Island Line, Southern/Gatwick Express and Southeastern

Thursday 7 December: Great Western Railway and Cross Country

Friday 8 December: Transpennine Trains and Northern Trains

Overtime Withdrawal: Friday 1 December-Saturday 9 December (all companies)

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