Union leaders vowed to fight the laws at a TUC special congress in December

LNER rail bosses backed off from the first use of the new anti-union laws this week after the Aslef union threatened to escalate strikes. It shows action wins results. Aslef had called a one-day strike on LNER as part of the latest round of pay walkouts.

This is part of the battle that has been waged for more than 18 months. LNER bosses then decided to use the new anti-union laws that lay down imposed scabbing and “work notices” that ensure 40 percent of services can run. Aslef responded by calling a further five strike days on LNER.

And the bosses decided it was better not to use the laws. Control 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. The initial decision to use the new law would have involved agreement from the highest levels of the government.

It set up a clash of the Tories versus workers and their unions. On Thursday last week, Tory rail minister Huw Merriman said the government hoped the anti-strike minimum service levels would be implemented, but it was “a matter for the employers”.

Presumably the decision to not use the law was also agreed by ministers. It’s a good message that the way to stop these laws becoming established is to step up strikes rather than calling them off. Personnel Today, an industry website, worried, “It is the first indication that the government’s act could become a paper tiger, as trade unions are likely to severely penalise any employer that chooses to use the legislation.”

Well, let’s hope unions do. But this is a battle postponed. The real test will come when a private employer—or the government—is determined to press ahead with using the law. Demolishing the law will take more than an individual union taking action.

The whole movement needs to organise and be ready for action. And Aslef’s decision to call off extra strikes after LNER said it wouldn’t use the law points to another problem. The union will now hold short and fragmented strikes that unfortunately have very little prospect of success.

As Aslef’s general secretary Mick Whelan said, “It has now been a year since we had any contact from the Department for Transport. “Many of our members have now not had a single penny increase to their pay in half a decade.” If stepping up strikes blocked the laws, then a much more serious set of strikes could win on pay.

Aslef’s strike timetable

Tues 30 January: Southeastern, Southern, Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Thameslink, South Western Railway and SWR Island Line
Wed 31 January: Northern Trains, Transpennine Express
Fri 2 February: Greater Anglia, C2C, LNER
Sat 3 February: West Midlands Trains, Avanti West Coast, East Midlands Railway
Mon 5 February: Great Western, CrossCountry, Chiltern

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