LNER Azuma in Edinburgh Waverley LNER Azuma in Edinburgh Waverley. Photo: E235JREMU / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

The Tories’ Minimum Service Levels Act was intended to hobble strike action, but Aslef has shown the way trade unionists can neutralise it, argues Richard Allday

The government’s latest attack on workers’ rights, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, exposed Sunak’s government as the vindictive anti-worker reactionaries Counterfire has always known them to be. Unfortunately for Sunak and his backers, it has also, on its first outing, revealed them as the spineless wannabes of the right.

Lacking confidence even in itself, the government shoved the responsibility for (ab)using its powers onto employers, and the first to test the waters were the sixteen Train Operating Companies facing strike action by the train-drivers’ union Aslef. Of those sixteen, the twelve privately-owned companies decided not to make matters worse. The four government-owned companies (TransPennine Express, Southeastern, Northern and LNER) waffled about ‘considering’, but only LNER openly stated its intention of serving the necessary ‘Work Notices’ to enforce 40% service levels on the union.

Aslef promptly slapped an additional five-days strike notice on LNER – at which point LNER stated it had absolutely no intention of using the legislation, they were very very sorry, there had been a terrible mix-up and would the union please call off the additional days of strike.

All of which goes to show that, in the words of a previous rail-union General Secretary, Bob Crow: ‘If you fight, you may not win; but if you don’t fight, you can’t win’ – a lesson the TUC should ponder and consider. Which was the more effective response to the government’s attack on trade-union rights? Aslef’s, or the TUC march in Cheltenham four days later?

As ‘Footplate Fletch’ put it in Counterfire (26/1/2024), Aslef ‘has left the Minimum Service Levels legislation in tatters – it is a train wreck.’ It is a lesson that had already been rehearsed a month earlier when the government tried to get the police to ban the anti-war marchers in London. The organisers told the Met there would be chaos if they tried to ban the march at such late notice, and that it was going ahead: ‘Your call Commissioner.’ At which point, the Met told the government it was on its own.

None of this means that the employers or the government (or the police) have gone away. The legislation is still on the statute book, the boys in blue still carry batons. But two essential truths have been demonstrated yet again: making concessions to these people only encourages them; and you can’t separate politics from economics.

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Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.