Rail strikes: RMT says government actively prevented deal

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By Kathryn Snowdon & Joseph Lee

BBC News

Media caption,

Watch: Mick Lynch, RMT general-secretary: “This dispute has been manufactured by Shapps”

The RMT union has blamed the “dead hand” of government after negotiations to prevent the biggest rail strikes in 30 years failed.

Thousands of staff at Network Rail and 13 rail operators are due to walk out on Tuesday, affecting most major lines.

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said there would only be a resolution if ministers allowed employers to negotiate “freely”.

The transport secretary blamed “outdated unions opposing progress”.

Mr Shapps said about 20% of services were expected to run during the strikes on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with the focus on key workers, main population centres and critical freight routes.

Services are expected to be affected from Monday evening, with disruption continuing on non-strike days.

Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines said “no strike is inevitable until the moment it begins”, but urged passengers to only travel by train if necessary. A special train timetable for 20 to 26 June was published on Friday.

Talks were held on Monday afternoon to avert the strikes but the sides remained deadlocked over a deal, Mr Lynch said.

He said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had been “fabricating” stories that the union had walked out of talks, and instead accused the government of interfering to prevent a deal.

“What we’ve come to understand is the dead hand of this government is all over this dispute. Until they allow these employers to negotiate freely I can’t see we’re going to get a resolution,” he said.

He said “massive cuts” of £4bn from the rail network and Transport for London meant thousands of job losses, reduced pensions and some staff being forced to accept salary cuts.

Mr Lynch said there was also a plan to close every ticket office in Britain. The Department of Transport said no final decision had been made, but said it was “absurd” to suggest it wanted to close every booking office.

The transport secretary has denied the government intervened in the dispute, saying “no minsters have ever been involved directly in these strike negotiations” and only the employers and union could reach an agreement.

In the House of Commons, Mr Shapps said the government could no longer tolerate rail unions using their right to strike “without any regard for how the rights of others are disrupted”.

He said minimum service legislation, which requires train companies to maintain a base level of service even during strikes, was part of the solution.

Mr Shapps told MPs that rail unions were preventing the industry from updating “obsolete working practices”, such as voluntary Sunday working – which he blamed for the cancellation of 170 trains before the Euro 2020 final last year.

He said it was “factually incorrect” to say the strike is about a pay freeze and said reforms for the railways would include a “decent annual pay rise” for staff.

“It’s about outdated unions opposing progress, progress that will secure the future of the railway,” he said.

Addressing union members directly, he said: “Your union bosses have got you striking under false pretences and, rather than protecting your jobs, they are actually endangering them and the railway’s future.”

The RMT has called for a pay rise of at least 7% to keep up with the cost of living.

But ministers have ruled out increases in line with inflation, which the Bank of England forecast would top 11% in the autumn.

“If we end up in a spiral whereby public sector workforces come to expect inflation-busting pay increases then that will lead to a spiral which we want to avoid whereby inflation becomes baked-in, it becomes both more severe and lasts longer than it needs to,” Treasury Minister Simon Clarke said.

Labour said the absence of the government from the negotiating table was “hobbling” talks.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Without them there, it’s impossible for them to find a way forward and therefore, it is inevitable that industrial action will happen.”

Network Rail says the last trains between many major cities are expected to depart over the course of the afternoon, before more than 40,000 rail workers walk out over job cuts, pay and conditions. The strike begins at 00: 01 BST on Tuesday.

Although ScotRail and Transport for Wales are not involved in the dispute, train services will be disrupted as the railways rely on Network Rail staff.

ScotRail said 90% of trains will be cancelled during the three days of strike action.

The reduced timetable will be in place until Sunday, with just 20% of usual services running on strike days.

Trains that do run will start later and finish much earlier than usual – between 07: 30 and 18: 30.

Rail strike basics

  • When? There will be rail strikes on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and a London Underground Strike on Tuesday
  • Where? Almost all major lines in England, Scotland and Wales will face disruption. Affected services include: Avanti West Coast; C2C; Chiltern Railways; Cross Country Trains; Croydon Tramlink; Greater Anglia; LNER; East Midlands Railway; Elizabeth Line; Great Western Railway; Hull Trains; London Underground; Northern Trains; South Eastern Railway; South Western Railway; TransPennine Express; West Midlands Trains.
  • Who? The RMT union’s members include everyone from guards and catering staff to signallers and track maintenance workers. Train driver members of the Aslef union will be striking on Thursday and 2 July on Greater Anglia and 28, 29 June and 13, 14 July on Croydon Tramlink.
  • Why? The RMT is striking over job cuts, pay and conditions. It says members working for train companies face “pay freezes, threats to jobs and attacks on their terms and conditions”. The union says it wants a deal reflecting the increased cost of living.

South Western Railway said it will run a “severely reduced timetable” on strike days, with significant sections of the network closed and a very limited service between 07: 15 and 18: 30 BST on some routes for those who have to travel.

Great Western Railway will only operate 30% of its usual timetabled services on strike days and about 50% on non-strike days.

West Midlands Railway, which will run a limited service on a small number of routes, urged customers to travel only if it is essential and if “no other transport option is available”.

Knock-on disruption is expected on the roads, with motorists being warned to expected a surge in traffic.

Motoring group the AA says drivers in Scotland and Wales should expect to face long queues as most railway lines will be closed.

The M74, M8 and A9 in Scotland and the M4, A55, A5, and A483 in Wales could see severe traffic, it says.

The RAC says major city routes and those serving the home counties are likely to see some of the biggest increases in traffic volumes.

The strikes will affect a number of events including school exams and the first Glastonbury Festival for three years.

Rail strike advice

Image source, Getty Images

Can I get a refund? Yes, if you cannot get your train due to strike action. Season-ticket holders can apply for a refund for the days affected. Find more info here.

Do I have to go to work or school? This is up to your individual employer or school, check with them.

How can I plan my train journey? Use the National Rail journey planner.

Leaders at 13 trade unions and the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) have jointly written to Mr Shapps urging him to “help deliver a fair resolution”. The Labour Party has also called on the government to step in.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said nobody took strike action lightly but argued rail staff had been left with “no other option”.

“Many rail staff who will be hit hardest – such as caterers and cleaners – are on low and average earnings. It’s insulting to ask them to take yet another real-terms pay cut when rail companies took £500m in profits during the pandemic,” she said.

However, Rail Delivery Group chair Steve Montgomery said rail bosses were trying to work with unions “on how to carry out modernisation and reform of the industry” amid falling passenger numbers.

“Ultimately we do want to give our people a pay increase… but we have to get on with reform.”

Meanwhile, under new legislation the government is expected to introduce this week, employers would be able to replace striking workers with agency staff.

The new law, which is likely to come into force from mid-July, has been criticised by the Trades Union Congress for undermining the right to strike and creating safety risks.

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