Rail unions have reacted angrily to the government’s threat to make the strike illegal if a minimum number of train workers do not work during the walkout.
Transportation Secretary Grant Shaps said a law would protect shipments of goods such as food and fuel.
The unions, however, pledged “strong resistance” to any impediment to the right to strike, calling the move “authoritarian” and “desperate nonsense.”
About 40,000 railway workers are being voted to take industrial action.
The ballot for members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) closes on Tuesday and the results will be announced the next day.
The RMT claimed that the strike – involving members of 15 train operating companies and network railways – could be the largest in “modern history” and could “paralyze” the country.
Mr Shaps told the Sunday Telegraph that the unions were using the strike as a first resort rather than a last resort.
He cited a promise made by the Conservative Party in its 2019 manifesto that it would “operate a minimum service during a transport strike”.
He told the newspaper: “We had a commitment to a minimum level of service there. If they really get to that point, minimum service levels will be a way to work to protect those freight routes and things like that.
“We hope they wake up and smell the coffee.”
However, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said “any attempt by Mr Shaps to legalize effective strikes on the railways would face strong resistance from the RMT and the wider trade union movement.”
He was joined by United Nations Secretary-General Sharon Graham, who said the union would “face any attack on the right to strike and by any means necessary.”
He called it a “brutal, authoritarian move”, adding: “The right of a worker to withdraw their labor is inalienable in any democracy that values its name.”
Meanwhile, Manuel Curtis, general secretary of the Transport Paid Staff Association, said: “What we see here is desperate talk from the Tories who have chosen to attack the working people in our union who keep the railroad running every day of the epidemic. “
In his manifesto, the Conservatives said: “Railway workers deserve a fair deal, but it is not right to allow trade unions to ruin the livelihoods of others.”
The RMT said the strike was to cut salaries, conditions as well as planned jobs. It said its members were facing “pay freezes, job threats and attacks on their terms”.
Network Rail plans to cut 2,500 maintenance jobs to save 2bn.
Network Rail – which maintains the railways and performs important functions such as signaling – has not been involved in any national strikes since 1994. There are concerns that its staff walkouts could affect both passengers and the movement of goods on trains, such as fuel. And food.
Although rail makes up a relatively small proportion of all freight, it is increasing due to the scarcity of lorry drivers and environmental considerations.