Rail strike to test transport unions and inflation strategy

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Good morning. The UK is gearing up for the biggest set of rail strikes in a generation. Today’s email contain some thoughts about what this dispute might reveal — I imagine, barring some kind of unexpected event, that this will be the dominant theme this week. Let me know what you think at the below email address.


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You’re taking the Mick

About 40,000 staff at Network Rail and 13 train operators will go on strike this Tuesday (assuming for a moment that a last-minute deal is not struck to avert the industrial action).

The big causes of disagreement are disputes over pay and redundancies. The rail trade union RMT wants a 7.1 per cent pay rise (reflecting where the retail price index was in December when the RMT and Network Rail began talks), and for no compulsory redundancies (there are plans to close large numbers of ticket offices as increasingly large numbers of tickets are bought online and not in-person).

In an interview with our transport correspondent Philip Georgiadis, the RMT’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, warned that strikes could continue on and off for the rest of the year if an agreement isn’t reached.

The dispute is a big moment for the transport unions, whose workers’ vital role in (quite literally) keeping the UK economy moving has allowed them to maintain staff pay and prestige while most other unions have been in retreat, and for the UK government, which wants to keep pay settlements low as part of the plan to fight inflation.

If the RMT secures its 7.1 per cent pay increase or anything like it, it will be harder for the UK government to make the case for pay restraint both in the private sector and more importantly in the public realm, where there are negotiations over pay settlements to come in health, education and the civil service.

But the big unanswered question facing the RMT is: do the changing patterns of work and leisure mean that the power of the UK’s transport unions is not what it once was? Can workplaces and individuals just flex back into remote working — at least in sufficient numbers that, while some people will have to drive or take a bus into work, the streets and roads won’t slow to a crawl and most people won’t really notice that industrial action is taking place?

That’s the question that Andrew Neil put to the Telegraph’s Madeline Grant and I on his programme yesterday, and I’m not going to pretend that since then I have got any closer to being able to answer it for sure. But one way or another these strikes are going to be a very big moment in the life of the UK: either because it will result in a settlement that will make the UK government’s inflation strategy harder to deliver, or because we may discover that the disruptive impact of a UK rail strike isn’t what it once was.

Now try this

I went to the pictures twice this weekend. On Friday I went to see ‘Everything Went Fine’, starring Sophie Marceau and Géraldine Pailhas as two daughters whose father (André Dussollier) suffers a non-fatal stroke and, facing the prospect of living out his remaining years with drastically reduced faculties, asks that they arrange an assisted suicide for him.

I found it . . . fine, frankly. I liked very much that the family patriarch is clearly something of a monster and that while one has sympathy for his plight, it is hard to muster much sympathy for him as a person. But the three-star rating Danny Leigh gives it in his review felt about right to me.

I also saw the remastered version of the 1965 movie adaptation of Dr Who and the Daleks starring Peter Cushing at the BFI. Cushing really was a terrific actor and he plays the role of Doctor Who — in the silver screen adaptation a human scientist actually called ‘Doctor Who’ — very well. It has a wonderful 1960s soundtrack. Otherwise it is, I’m afraid, exactly what you’d expect from a film made very quickly to cash in on the stunning popularity of a brand new intellectual property: that is to say, it’s bad!

Film-lovers without plans this Friday: there is a screening of a 1987 classic of cinema, ‘Wings of Desire’, at the Curzon Mayfair this Friday evening. I am very gutted that I do have plans on Friday night and therefore can’t make it.

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