LNER train sat at station

The first major confrontation with the new anti-union laws is coming early next month. It is a massive test for all workers to defend their right to strike. It will pit the Aslef train drivers’ union against the LNER train operating company. LNER is controlled by the government after its private operator—Virgin—thought it was not making enough money and handed it back to state control in 2018.

Socialist Worker knows that LNER bosses are moving to use the laws which enforce scabbing and instruct unions to herd their members across picket lines. Such a decision would have involved agreement from the highest levels of the government. It is a clash of the Tories versus workers and their unions.

In transport the new “minimum service laws” give bosses the right to demand that named workers scab on their own strikes and deliver 40 percent of the normal service, even if they have voted for action. The laws will soon apply to 5.5 million workers in fire and rescue, health, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border control. It’s pro-boss legislation designed to gut the right to strike.

And if they are successful in these sectors there then they will be used everywhere. One senior government figure admitted to the Financial Times newspaper that ministers hoped operators would use the law. “We would very much hope that they would use those powers,” they said. “We aren’t going to grandstand and publicly urge [operators] to do it but we quietly expect them do to so.”

Last month a TUC union federation special congress unanimously agreed to confront the laws. It said unions “have no choice but to build mass opposition to the laws”. This would see action “up to and including a strategy of non-compliance and non-cooperation to make them unworkable, including industrial action”. It also confirmed, “We must use all means necessary to defeat the unjust laws.”

The unions committed to “100 per cent solidarity with any trade unions attacked under these laws”. These words need urgently to be turned into action. Aslef has to defy the law and other unions need to act alongside them to prevent fines and sackings.

On Thursday Aslef notified additional strikes. Drivers were due to strike at LNER on Friday 2 February and will now strike for another five days from Monday 5 until Friday 9 February. They will extend an overtime and rest day working ban until Saturday 10 February.

Officially, the union said, “The action is in furtherance of the union’s long-running pay dispute with the operator.” But it is an attempt to hit back at the bosses for preparing to use the law. It will take much more to break these laws and stop bosses using them.

The “model letter” which unions are supposed to send out includes a union telling workers that it “encourages you to comply with the work notice, to attend your place of work and undertake the work that is required of you, as specified in the written communication from the employer.” It goes on, “You should ignore any call to strike, whether from the union or any other person.” It then says workers who are part of the scab force must ignore pickets.

It’s crucial that Aslef does not send out such a letter. Its leaders may hope that it can fulfil the letter of the law but quietly send out a “nod and wink” message that workers should stay off work anyway or call in sick. That’s not enough. Unions have to fight with all their power to defend their rights. The new laws must not become normalised.

Too often union leaders in the last 40 years have made bold speeches against anti-union laws and then accepted them in practice. Many union leaders now will be secretly waiting for a Keir Starmer government rather than mobilising to defend the right to strike. Grassroots workers have to organise now to pressure their union leaders to fight and to deliver solidarity.

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