Keith Prince is a member of the London Assembly.
A system that enables the RMT and ASLEF to disrupt hundreds of thousands of people’s lives for weeks and months on end through the Southern rail strike cannot, in all fairness, be said to be working. Therefore it is welcome that the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, has made clear he will “not rule anything out” in terms of introducing new anti-strike laws. Despite the fact that Number 10 is reportedly less keen on legislation, it makes sense to think about what legislation would be sensible and make the case for it now.
In 2013, Richard Tracey, my predecessor as GLA Conservatives’ Transport Spokesman, released a report entitled Struck Out. His report made the case for banning strikes on public transport as part of a wider redrawing on the rules of engagement for industrial relations. I believe there is real merit in these proposals and I would urge the Government to look at them. They are not a knee-jerk reaction to the unacceptable events we have seen on Southern, but a well-considered approach that could deal with a systemic problem and improve the quality of our transport unions.
At this juncture it is worth considering the purpose of strike action. The theory is that by acting collectively those workers who would individually be weak are able to stand up to their over-mighty management. This provides a bulwark against unreasonably low pay or unsafe working conditions.
Nevertheless, in reality it is the militant public transport unions that are too often over-mighty. Union barons on six-figure salaries deliberately inconvenience passengers in the hope that they can squeeze ever more money from hard-pressed taxpayers or, perhaps, damage the Government.
So there is a clear need for an alternative. My proposal is to ban strikes on public transport and replace them with a right to binding pendulum arbitration. This would work as follows:
- If 50 per cent +1 of all eligible union members voted for binding pendulum arbitration on an issue then that issue would be put to a judge or independent arbiter.
- The public transport operators – typically Transport for London or a train operating company like Southern – would put their position forward and the union would do the same.
- The judge would then choose between the two positions. He or she could not suggest a compromise, but would simply decide which of the two positions was the more reasonable.
This would preserve the ability of trade unions to seek redress if their members believe a proposal is dangerous or mistaken. However it would not allow them to use public transport users as collateral.
Whereas the status quo encourages militancy, this system would mean that industrial relations were a battle to be most reasonable. Instead of asking for a huge pay rise in the expectation that it will be negotiated down to merely a large one, unions would have an incentive to ask for a more modest increase. Similarly the train operating company would have an incentive to offer a realistic increase in order to avoid the arbiter siding with the union.
To be clear, this would not mean the train operators would have everything their own way. Banning strikes would not and should not mean that operators could inflict any unmerited change on their workers. At one stage the ability to strike might have been crucial in protecting employees from unscrupulous employers. Today it is clear that this is a gross caricature of reality and it is equally clear that we can do better. It is time to end strike action on public transport and replace it with a model fit for the 21st Century.