Rail workers across Britain were on Thursday told it was “very unlikely” that they will get a seven per cent pay boost despite such a deal being agreed on Merseyside.
As tens of thousands of staff staged a second day of strike action, commuters spoke of their frustration and said it was like “Groundhog Day”.
Fresh talks were due to take place today between union bosses, led by Mick Lynch, and rail chiefs but they fired off a volley of exchanges in an early morning war of words. Hopes among rail workers across the country of a seven per cent wage increase were fuelled after the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association reached a 7.1 per cent pay rise deal with Merseyrail.
TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes claimed it was a “a sensible outcome to a reasonable offer which goes a long way towards keeping pace with the escalating cost of living”.
However, Network Rail, where 40,000 workers were taking industrial action, said such a pay rise would require £65 million of cost-efficiency improvements. Pressed on whether Network Rail would eventually have to agree to a 7.1 per cent agreement, its chief negotiator, Tim Shoveller, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “That is very unlikely. We currently have an offer that totals three per cent on the table and we are keen to improve on that... but that is subject to affordability.”
The Rail, Maritime and Transport union’s starting point for the talks has been a pay rise of around seven per cent.
Mr Shoveller continued: “The difference between the three per cent on the table now and a 7.1 per cent deal is this £65 million every year, just for the grade groups on strike today... that is £65 million a year, every year of additional savings that have to be found in order to fund that difference.
“We can see a way of funding a pay deal, not of those sort of proportions, but still an overall good package, recognising that the prime thing that the unions are asking for is a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies.”
However, as millions of passengers faced another day of train chaos, the RMT threatened more strikes if their demands are not met.
“We’ll continue to talk to the companies about everything that’s been put on the table and we’ll review that and see if, and when, there needs to be a new phase of industrial action,” said RMT secretary-general Mr Lynch. “But if we don’t get a settlement, it’s extremely likely that there will be.”
Eddie Dempsey, assistant general secretary of the RMT, claimed on Times Radio, that the Department for Transport had blocked the removal of a letter threatening 2,900 workers with redundancies. “Every time we think we’re making progress, we suddenly seem to have the rug pulled out from under our feet,” he said. However, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has dismissed the claim that he stopped the withdrawal of the letter as a “lie” and he was backed up by Mr Shoveller who dismissed it as a “smokescreen”, stressing that the letter was part of a legal process to proceed with reforms to outdated work practices on the railways.
Mr Shoveller, who used to work with Mr Lynch on Eurostar, also said it was ironic that it was the RMT negotiators who in fact had to go away and consult their executive council on how to proceed in the talks. Just one in five trains were due to run today, and they were mostly restricted to main lines, with around half of the network closed.
Services started later than normal at 7.30am and were to shut down early at 6.30pm. Several major stations were virtually deserted on this morning, including Euston and Paddington.
At Victoria station this morning, Christine Lightfoot, 35, a data analyst, said: “It’s a case of ‘here we go again’. The RMT is being vengeful and trying to get at the government but it is just hurting working people.”
Finance worker Amir Massoud, 28, said: “Enough is enough. Of course the workers want big pay rises but this is not the way to win over the public.”
Another passenger added: “It’s like Groundhog Day. It was the same on Tuesday and I bet we’ll be suffering again with more strikes soon.”
Although talks are ongoing, a third day of strikes is planned for Saturday, with workers at 13 other rail operators also taking part in the walk-outs. ”
Unions representing teachers, postal workers, nurses, doctors, civil servants and barristers are also moving towards industrial action in what could be a “summer of discontent”.
Ministers were today setting out planned changes to a law that would make it easier for businesses to use temporary staff, in a moved designed to minimise the impact of strike action.
Broadband provider Virgin Media O2 said “millions more people” are working from home during this week’s strikes.
A spokesman said: “Due to the nationwide strikes this week, millions more people are working from home and relying on their broadband services.
“Virgin Media O2 saw a peak 5% week-on-week lift on Tuesday in its broadband upstream traffic, due to the increase of video calls on platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.”