UK rail strike set to begin after failure of last-ditch talks

The biggest rail strikes in a generation will go ahead from Tuesday after the failure of last-minute talks to avoid industrial action.

“We are moving on now to the next phase of this campaign,” Mick Lynch, the head of the RMT rail union, said on Monday afternoon.

Lynch said the RMT had rejected a pay proposal from train operating companies on Monday, having previously turned down an offer by Network Rail, the infrastructure manager, in a dispute over pay rises, working practices and possible redundancies.

“Both sets of proposals were unacceptable, and it is now confirmed strike action will go ahead,” he said.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, the UK’s main movement for organised labour, added that workers all over the country were supporting striking rail employees and would in some cases be holding their own ballots for “pay justice”.

On Tuesday, 40,000 Network Rail staff at 13 train operators are due to walk out over pay and redundancy disputes, with subsequent stoppages on Thursday and Saturday.

Disruption is expected on all of the UK’s major train lines, including LNER, Avanti West Coast and many commuter railways, as well as the London Underground. It is likely to persist on days between the official strikes.

One rail executive said the industry would keep talking to the RMT if possible, in the hope of avoiding the strikes planned for later in the week.

The government is braced for a summer of discontent, with unions taking steps towards industrial action on behalf of workers ranging from doctors, nurses and local government staff to traffic wardens and postal workers.

Criminal barristers voted at the weekend to step up action on legal aid and plan walkouts for several days over each of the next four weeks.

The TUC would not rule out coordinating action, O’Grady said, but added: “The point is that workers are coordinating themselves, not out of any deliberate strategy but because millions are now facing low pay, insecurity and real cuts to their pay packets. So of course workers who feel they have no choice will be balloting.”

Ministers are seeking to hold public sector pay rises to as little as 2 per cent even though the Bank of England forecasts inflation will top 11 per cent by October.

Although the government insists it still wants a “high wage, high growth economy”, Simon Clarke, chief secretary to the Treasury, told the BBC on Monday that public sector workers should not expect raises in line with inflation.

In an indication of the UK government’s low expectations over the rail negotiations and the prospect of other industrial action over the summer, Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, plans this week to scrap a legal ban on the use of temporary workers to replace striking staff.

Kwarteng is set to repeal the 1973 prohibition by approving so-called secondary legislation — laws a minister can approve because of powers delegated to them by other acts of parliament.

While rail groups have welcomed the plan to junk the 1973 law — an unfulfilled 2015 Conservative manifesto pledge — the step is only likely to ease the pressure on staff shortages in low-skilled roles such as cleaners and station staff. It would take effect in mid-July.

Business groups and unions said the plan was impractical and called safety into question.

“Our aim should be to resolve conflict, not prolong it,” said Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employers Confederation, a trade body.

He said that in a tight labour market, temporary workers would not accept jobs that forced them to cross picket lines, while agencies wanted the ban to remain in place to avoid pressure from clients to place staff in “hostile and potentially dangerous situations”.

The RMT warns that the strike — the biggest for more than 30 years — will continue until its pay demands are met. The union’s members voted for a six-month strike mandate in May, leaving the possibility of more strikes in the summer and autumn.

Louise Haigh, shadow transport secretary, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the government had failed to set a negotiating mandate for the employers.

“Not only are they boycotting the talks, they are actually hobbling them . . . it is imperative that they step in.”

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