Mick Lynch: government is deliberately ensuring rail strikes go ahead

RMT union leader says Department for Transport inserted bitterly opposed driver-only clause at last moment

The leader of the RMT union, Mick Lynch, has accused the government of deliberately ensuring next week’s rail strikes go ahead by blocking negotiations, with rail bosses calling off talks as “a waste of time” while ministers insist on unacceptable provisions.

He said meetings between the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) representing train operators and the RMT had failed to occur for three successive days because of a clause inserted for driver-only operation, which all rail unions have bitterly opposed for many years.

Speaking in the boardroom of the RMT’s Euston headquarters on Thursday, Lynch said the Department for Transport was “not trusted in Whitehall” and that other ministers had sought to block a resolution. “There’s always a back-seat driver, and then there’s someone sitting behind the back-seat driver, that’s the problem.

“The RDG won’t talk, they say it’s a waste of time. They’ve got to run train companies, and they’re getting really fed up.”

The offer from train companies was rejected on Sunday night by the RMT. Questioned by MPs on Wednesday, the transport secretary, Mark Harper, refused to deny reports that Downing Street had inserted controversial clauses into the deal at the weekend, after a positive meeting between the union, rail leaders and a minister on Friday.

Lynch said the two sides had otherwise reached a position that for the union “would have been very challenging, but it didn’t have driver-only operation in it”.

“We went on Sunday fully expecting that they would fill in the blanks on pay, and [the RDG] said, ‘We can’t do what we said, [the DfT] have made us put driver-only operation into this document, which we had withdrawn as managers.’”

He added: “They may as well walk in with a fish and slap me round the chops with it.”

The RMT leader said many members would likely have opposed the potential deal, which would mean “the closure of every ticket office in Britain – that’s not hyperbole, that’s in the written offer”.

He added: “There is no prospect of settling this dispute. If we had got an offer, we’d have had to consult. We’re blocked by this government.”

The RDG did not offer further comment, but its chair, Steve Montgomery, said on Tuesday: “Regrettably, the RMT leadership’s refusal to put our proposed 8% pay offer to its membership means we are unable to reach a resolution at this stage, although we remain open to talks.”

Lynch said the union had settled in Wales, Scotland, Merseyrail and London – “everywhere the DfT does not run the railways”.

“In my view, they are deliberately doing it because that want the action,” he said, adding that the government was attempting to change strike law, enforcing minimum strike levels in sectors including health and rail, because “they’re not winning the argument. Polls show 70% back us.”

The RMT also rebuffed a pay offer from Network Rail on Monday, ensuring that the first of a wave of strikes over the next month goes ahead next week.

Lynch said three-quarters of the union’s members at Network Rail earn less than £35,000. The pay increase, of 9% plus benefits over two years, would be underpinned and worth potentially up to 14% over two years for the lowest-paid.

He said members at Network Rail would now decide whether to accept the offer in an electronic referendum, but expected them to reject it, stressing that job security and safety were as important as pay.

He warned: “It’s funded by thousands of job losses and cutting the safety regime by 50%. If a train comes off the rails at 140mph with 900 people in it, maybe they’ll say, ‘Yes, but we did save a few million quid in the 2022 pay dispute.’ The railway will be less safe than now.”

Train services across Britain will be massively disrupted as thousands of workers at Network Rail and 14 train operating companies strike on 13-14 and 16-17 December.

Train operators have asked passengers to travel only if it is absolutely necessary. Timetables will be published on Friday, but about 20% of services are expected to run on strike days, mainly between 7.30am and 6.30pm, with knock-on disruption on the following days.

There will be a further two 48-hour strikes on 3-4 and 6-7 January, as well as a strike from the evening of Christmas Eve until early on 27 December, which will mainly disrupt engineering works.

Another rail union, the TSSA, on Wednesday also confirmed a strike on 17 December and other industrial action short of a strike at various operators, likewise accusing the government of blocking a deal with train companies.

A DfT spokesperson said: “We’ve been clear from the outset that reforms to work practices are a necessary part of this deal, in order to fund the pay offer and modernise the railways.

“The prime minister, chancellor and transport secretary remain in full agreement about the offer that was put on the table this week.”


Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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