For the past 8 months, strike action by the RMT and ASLEF unions have made am already bad service on Southern rail unusable. There have been nearly 40 strike days, during which 300,000 people are unable to get to work or home to see loved ones. Some people have had to quit their jobs, and others are even considering moving house.
You might think that the Unions are protesting at a serious injustice. They are not. No jobs are being lost. No salaries are being cut. Every train currently scheduled to have two staff members (driver and conductor) will continue to have two staff scheduled. The dispute is over who presses the button to open the door and whether trains can still run if a conductor calls in sick or is on strike. The RMT are disputing these issues to retain their ability to shut down the network with a future strike by conductors. The RMT President Sean Hoyle has gone even further and quite openly said that the strike is about “bringing down the Government”. Even senior Labour MP Meg Hillier says the Unions have gone too far this time.
Nor are here any safety issues as the Unions claim. The Rail Regulator has declared driver-operated doors safe, and a third of all UK trains run with driver operated doors perfectly safely. In the last 5 years 1.5 million trains have run in this way with no fatalities. All of London Underground and most continental European trains run with driver operated doors.
That is why we need new legislation. Strikes on critical national services (such as rail, tubes, buses and the NHS) should have to be “proportionate and reasonable” in the view of a High Court Judge. The judge would weigh up the complaint of the striking workers against the impact on the public in deciding what is “proportionate and reasonable”. The judge would also specify a level of basic service that would be available during any strike. The law in Canada, Spain and Italy works this way with a 50% service level ensured when strikes do occur.
I do not dispute the right to strike for a moment. But the public also has a right to get to work and not be forced from their own jobs by militant union action. Current legislation does not give this balance. There is a strong and growing tide of opinion in Parliament that we need to act. That is why I am introducing a Private Members Bill on Tuesday 24th January to propose exactly these changes. We must respect the public’s right to get to work as well as the right to strike.