UK rail strikes set to go ahead after RMT rejects pay offer
A series of highly disruptive rail strikes in the run-up to Christmas looks all but certain to go ahead after the UK’s largest rail trade union on Sunday rejected an improved pay offer intended to resolve its long-running dispute with train operators.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, said the union was rejecting the offer from the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, because it met none of its criteria for securing a settlement on long-term job security, a decent pay rise and protecting working conditions.
The employer group had offered a 4 per cent annual pay rise for both 2022 and 2023 in return for multiple changes to working practices.
The union said it would consider on Monday an offer from Network Rail, owner of the UK’s rail infrastructure, to settle a separate dispute over pay, conditions and job security. Network Rail increased its pay offer for this year to 5 per cent, from 4 per cent previously, while maintaining its offer of a 4 per cent increase for next year.
Transport secretary Mark Harper called the RMT’s stance “incredibly disappointing” and said it was unfair to the public, passengers and the workforce, who wanted a deal.
Train operators and Network Rail said on Friday that a settlement would need to be reached by the end of Monday if the first of four planned 48-hour strikes — starting on December 13 — by RMT members at Network Rail and 14 train companies was to be avoided. After Monday, industry planning will have to proceed on the assumption that a strike will take place, making disruption inevitable even if any industrial action were cancelled.
Earlier on Sunday Nadhim Zahawi, Tory party chair, infuriated unions and political opponents by claiming that British workers across a range of sectors going on strike in the run-up to Christmas were playing into the hands of Vladimir Putin.
Zahawi argued that the Russian leader had hoped to cause economic chaos by using energy supplies as a weapon in his invasion of Ukraine, forcing up inflation across Europe and triggering divisions in society.
“It’s unfair, in my view, for the unions to really damage and disrupt people’s lives and livelihoods at Christmas,” Zahawi told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg.
“They should rethink and reflect on this because that is exactly what Putin wants to see. Let’s not divide, let’s come together,” he said.
As well as the action by rail staff, there are set to be strikes this month by nurses, postal workers, and university lecturers in disputes mostly over pay offers far behind consumer price inflation, which in October reached a 41-year high of 11.1 per cent.
Zahawi’s comments were described as “ludicrous and insulting” by Christine Jardine for the Liberal Democrats.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said using Russia’s war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses was “a new low for this government”.
“The public does not believe this kind of rhetoric and wants ministers to address our dispute,” she said.
Meanwhile, Zahawi said the role of the army was part of contingency planning under which soldiers could be drafted in to carry out the work of key staff who went on strike in areas such as border control and the ambulance service.
The RMT’s response to the Rail Delivery Group’s offer dashes hopes that had been rising after a meeting on Friday between Lynch and Huw Merriman, the rail minister, that Merriman described as a “constructive and open discussion”. The union subsequently held further talks with the Rail Delivery Group and Network Rail, owner of the UK’s rail infrastructure.
The perception of a country grinding to a halt through a series of strikes is a serious political risk for Rishi Sunak’s government, with the Conservatives typically trailing Labour by 20 points in opinion polls.
Zahawi said the party was rebuilding itself under Sunak’s leadership but he agreed that the Conservatives’ heavy defeat to Labour in last week’s Chester by-election — which the opposition party held with 60 per cent of the vote — had been a very poor result.