Sides dig in for summer of discontent and lengthy UK rail disputes

The UK government and the unions seem set for an entrenched battle over the dispute expected to play out over this summer. Both sides have been ramping up their rhetoric, leaving the nation braced for the consequences of further commuter chaos and supply chain disruption.

After members voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action, the trades union RMT increased the pressure on the UK government to meet their demands. So far, that has only resulted in a hardening of attitude from Westminster. All the signs are for a heavyweight battle with neither side backing down. Older observers are likening this to the showdown between the 1984 government of Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Miners.

Government not conciliatory

Earlier this week, the RMT general secretary Mick Lynch reported that face to face talks had taken place. The ballot result had driven the union and the government into meaningful talks. “Since the ballot results on May 24, discussions have been taking place at an industry-wide level under the auspices of the Rail Industry Recovery Group (RIRG) to create a framework and structure for negotiations on all issues in the dispute”, he said. “RMT has agreed to continue these discussions to create a framework for negotiations on all aspects of the dispute.”

Transport Secretary faces the public over rail, air, sea and road chaos, and is that a text from Mick Lynch? (Flickr)

However, the response from the government has not been conciliatory. A statement from the Department for Transport, which would almost certainly have been cleared personally by transport secretary Grant Shapps, was critical of the union for its timing. “[It was] hugely disappointing and premature that the RMT is calling for industrial action before even entering discussions”, read the statement. Shapps himself was embroiled in a confrontation with the aviation industry this week, as Britain’s airports collapsed into chaos amid a holiday rush and post-pandemic staff shortages.

A sustained campaign of action

If the air war is being lost, then it is not much better on the ground. The RMT ballot result was a clear declaration, and the combatants are in the process of both mobilising and preparing the front line. “RMT will continue to make active preparations for a sustained campaign of industrial action”, said Lynch. “[That is] to seek job security with a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies; that any changes to structures, working practices, or conditions have to be agreed with our union, not imposed; and that our members deserve a negotiated pay increase that addresses the rising cost of living.”

Mike Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, has made his union’s position clear in early talks over the current dispute (RMT image)

The infrastructure agency Network Rail, which is effectively an agency of the DfT, has remained largely silent, despite being directly targeted. Remember that the RMT originally went into a dispute over proposals for radical changes in critical safety cover at NR. Nevertheless, passenger train operators know what they could be facing and are reacting. Among them, Jamie Burles, the managing director of the East of England operator Greater Anglia said his company was making ready. “We are working on several contingency options to provide our customers with the best possible service depending on the circumstances. We will keep passengers updated about what they can expect during any industrial action – should it go ahead – so that they can plan their journeys.”

A major escalation

With no strike call made yet, there are still several weeks before anything may happen. Legislation in the UK requires a minimum of two-weeks notice of strike action. “The matter will be considered again by the RMT NEC (National Executive Committee) on Tuesday, June 7”, said Lynch – meaning this Jubilee weekend will be free of everything except speculation. “We will consider how to develop our campaign, including the issue of setting dates for phases of industrial action”, added Lynch. “Our participation in the proposed discussions does not mean RMT has reached an agreement with any train operating companies, Network Rail, or the Government’s current proposals.”

In a major escalation, Lynch has called on other unions outside the rail industry to make their presence felt by seeking action from their members. Meanwhile, on Wednesday in Scotland, a separate dispute took a step towards answering that call. The drivers’ union ASLEF rejected a pay offer from the government appointed management of Scotland’s Railway. They say that unless further talks take place, a ballot for strike action will take place. It seems only a matter of time until the first shot is fired, with the only question remaining: where?

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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