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Striking a balance with transport worker rights

18 December 2019

Boris Johnson has just been re-elected as prime minister in the recent United Kingdom elections.

Aside from a Brexit deal, one of the key policies he has promised is making what he calls "all-out strikes" on public transport illegal under a new conservative administration.

This follows major disruption on UK train routes. The new prime minister said he thought it was absurd that critical mass transit systems should be capable of being put out of action by strikes when other countries around the world have a minimum service requirement for public transport.

And, says Johnson, that's what he wants to see in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile the Rail Union says its members on the South Western Railway are standing firm on the second of 27 planned strikes over the role of guards on trains. The employer wants drivers to operate the doors at every stop on trains to save time, and the union is refusing to let this happen.

Simultaneously, across France last week, many of the big unions representing transport workers declared unlimited strikes over pension reform, which at its worst reduced national rail services to 10 per cent of the usual services.

Two weeks ago,bus drivers in Auckland employed by NZ Bus went on partial strike for a week by refusing to take payment for rides. The drivers disabled the AT HOP card machines and refused to take cash fares in an attempt to break the deadlock between the drivers' unions, FIRST and NZ Tramways Union, and their employer, NZ Bus.

FIRST union explained this tactic as "a clean protest that kept the buses running".

This partial strike tactic has been seen in several countries including Japan, Australia and Argentina. It allows workers to inflict maximum impact on their employer without causing the widespread transit disruption that would otherwise occur with a full strike.

However, the attempt at limiting public disruption failed when NZ Bus responded by suspending the striking drivers without pay, resulting in cancellation of services. The drivers, then facing the prospect of not getting paid for the next two weeks, attempted to cause further disruption by protesting outside the bus depots of other bus operators.

Transit disruption has broader impacts than grumpy commuters.

Generally, global warming is leading to greater reliance and use of public transport and less use of private cars.

For instance, there has been much discussion and controversy about Wellington transport options whether City Council investment should be focused on improving roads, or whether instead the focus should be on better mass transit, such as introducing light rail to facilitate its carbon neutral goals.

However, if our society is moving towards greater use of and investment in public transport, the public will demand that the transport is reliable and not prone to mechanical breakdowns or strikes.

Unions are entitled to take strike action in certain types of public transport so long as certain conditions are met, but should that law be changed?

Under New Zealand law, for an action to be a "lawful strike" it must be some kind of joint action done by the workers. Permitted reasons include health and safety or collective bargaining, such as for a wage increase.

The unions and employers are expected to have been negotiating for a set period of time and that the old agreement is expired.

The law does designate certain industries as "essential services" and places additional notice requirements on strikes and lockouts if the action will affect public interest. Such industries include the supply of petrol, electricity and water, hospital care, police emergency response services, air transport, and some boat services.

Other transport systems such as buses do not make the cut.

In several countries, such as Portugal and Italy, the government goes further and mandates minimum services that are guaranteed to run in the event of transport-sector strikes. It is this sort of legislation that Boris Johnson promised in his campaign.

New Zealand doesn't require a minimum service to be provided. Requiring a minimum service might be a halfway house where transport workers still can take limited strike action and advance their case for perhaps a wage increase.

But what about health and safety? Should that be treated differently? Or in the case of public transport, should there be some form of compulsory arbitration to resolve disputes?

There is already such a system in place with the police, but the problem with extending it into other areas is the old problem of where you draw the line.

It would be unfair if workers in public transport were denied an avenue for advancing their claims. However, the patience of the travelling public is going to be much more limited as people become more dependent on public transport by virtue of Government policy.

Some solution that keeps public transport going really needs to be found.

Boris Johnson obviously read the mood of British travelling public well. Is our travelling public are demanding a similar change?

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