Train strikes: Government ‘criminalising dissent against poverty’, RMT Union boss claims

“It seems the answer the government has to the cost of living crisis is to criminalise dissent against poverty,” he said.

A senior rail union leader has hit out at the government for “criminalising dissent against poverty” in its response to the cost of living crisis.

It comes as transport unions urged the government to get involved in negotiations with workers or “get out of the way” - while fresh strike dates are yet to be determined.

Leaders of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT) and train drivers union Aslef appeared at the transport select committee in the House of Commons this morning (Wednesday, July 13).

Eddie Dempsey, from the RMT (left), and Mick Whelan, from Aslef. Photo: Parliament TV

It comes as Aslef members on the Croydon Tramlink voted to strike today and tomorrow following similar action last month, and train drivers on the London Overground and Chiltern Railways will walk out later this summer.

While RMT is locked in an ongoing dispute with the government and train companies over workers’ pay and conditions and is set to meet tonight to determine dates for any further rounds of strikes.

Waterloo station during the rail strikes last month. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Speaking to MPs, RMT assistant general secretary Eddie Dempsey criticised the government over its handling of the current difficult economic situation.

“We’ve had a lot of very hairy rhetoric from the government and it seems the answer the government has to the cost of living crisis is to criminalise dissent against poverty,” he said.

“They’re talking about bringing in laws to further restrict trade unions and what we’re doing.”

He added: “It’s a shame Grant Shapps hasn’t been called here today to answer some questions.”

Ministers announced a change in the law enabling businesses to supply skilled agency workers to plug staffing gaps during industrial action in June, a move which drew criticism.

Mr Dempsey also warned that the International Trade Unions Congress (ITUC) had ranked Britain as committing “regular violations of trade union freedoms” - alongside nations including Liberia, Georgia and Mozambique.

He said: “It’s worth noting the global index on trade union freedoms by the ITUC rates us as number three - which means there’s regular violations in this country of trade union freedoms: the right to collectively bargain; the right to organise and build a trade union; and have your civil liberties defended.

“We’ve got some very interesting company at number three. It’s very worrying that the government’s answer to the cost of living crisis is to criminalise dissent against poverty in this country.”

Mick Lynch, secretary-general of the RMT, outside King’s Cross station. Credit: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

The ITUC document, published last month, included the UK on a list of countries where companies were violating workers’ rights, due to employees sacked by ferry firm P&O.

It said: “Governments and/or companies are regularly interfering in collective labour rights or are failing to fully guarantee important aspects of these rights. There are deficiencies in laws and/or certain practices which make frequent violations possible.”

While Mick Whelan, from Aslef, added: “People are using the pandemic as an excuse to decimate terms and conditions, to force things through on a lessened opportunity cost basis and we’re in the same position.

“We seem to be slightly demonised in the press because all I read about is train drivers’ wages comparative to other workers… all workers deserve decent pay.

“We believe nurses, firefighters, shop workers, all those that aren’t currently valued by society and aren’t financially rewarded for what they do should have what we have.

“But we don’t believe someone’s going to automatically give it to them if we don’t fight for our own rights at the same time.

“We don’t believe it’s a race to the bottom.”

And Mr Dempsey warned that if the rail industry was left “overly reliant on overtime and massively reliant on subcontractors” this would lead to an increase in risk - which has been linked to “a number of disasters on the rail track”.