Eurovision rail strike workers should show solidarity with Ukraine colleagues, says transport secretary
Striking rail staff should want to stand in solidarity with fellow Ukrainian workers rather than "cynically target" the Eurovision Song Contest, which the UK is hosting on behalf of the war-torn nation, the transport secretary has said.
Speaking to Sky News' Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Mark Harper argued the stricken country's train network has been the specific focus of attacks by invading Russian forces on the orders of Vladimir Putin.
But the cabinet minister's comments have been derided as "bizarre" by a union leader at the centre of the rail dispute, who highlighted his group's support for Ukraine and argued seeking a pay rise had nothing to do with the conflict.
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Mr Harper was speaking after it was announced members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) at 14 train operators would walkout on the day of the Eurovision final being staged in Liverpool on 13 May.
It comes after the union's executive rejected the latest offer aimed at resolving a long-running pay row.
The RMT settled a dispute with Network Rail last month.
The train driver's union Aslef is also to hold strikes on the eve of the Eurovision competition on 12 May and 31 May, as well as on 3 June, the day of the FA Cup Final.
Mr Harper told Ridge: "I think it's very damaging that the rail unions are calling a strike specifically targeting the Eurovision Song Contest.
"I've met with the head of Ukrainian Railways. The Ukrainian railways have been specifically targeted by Vladimir Putin. Rail workers are being killed in their hundreds.
"And I would have thought, frankly, rail workers would have wanted to stand in solidarity with them rather than targeting the Eurovision Song Contest, which, if you remember, it's not our song contest.
"We are hosting it, but we're hosting it for Ukraine and I think cynically targeting events that hard-working, working men and women across the country are spending their money on to try and attend and targeting those I think is very cynical."
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But hitting back, Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said: "I take my hat off to Mr Harper, because of all the accusations I have ever heard, and I have heard a good few in my time, this really is the most ridiculous.
"He claims we are not standing in solidarity with Ukraine when he knows - or should know - that we have stood in solidarity with the people of that country much longer than he has."
He added: "I have been to Ukraine - I was there as the Russian tanks invaded - and Aslef's assistant general secretary, Simon Weller, has been there to talk to rail workers when the Russian bombs were falling. Mr Harper hasn't. And we are members of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign. Mr Harper isn't.
"So I am not going to take any lessons in solidarity from a Tory cabinet minister who doesn't understand what he is talking about.
"Standing shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine has nothing to do with the Eurovision Song Contest, anyway, bless him.
"And we are not even on strike on the day of the contest, anyway."
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Mr Whelan went on: "The truth is that Mr Harper should tell the train companies to come back to the negotiating table and make train drivers who have not had a pay increase since 2019 a sensible offer so they can buy, this year, what they could buy four years ago. Then there would be no more strikes.
"The only people who are responsible for the ongoing strikes in this country - in all the different sectors of the British economy - are the government and the employers.
"And seeking a pay increase has nothing whatsoever to do with Ukraine."
The RMT declined to comment.