Talks on averting a nationwide rail stoppage are due to take place on Monday, with both sides steeling themselves for the sector’s biggest strike in a generation.
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.
The government is braced for a summer of discontent, with unions taking steps towards industrial action on behalf of workers ranging from doctors, nurses, local government staff and traffic wardens to barristers and postal workers.
Although the Rail Delivery Group, an industry body, said talks would take place with the RMT union on Monday, both sides are continuing preparations for the strike.
“We still hope to try and avoid it,” said Steve Montgomery, the group’s chair, told the BBC. “We are obviously speaking to the trade unions today again but we need to try to work together to try to stop this.”
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.
In a bid to reduce the impact, Kwarteng is set to repeal the 1973 prohibition on using agency staff, by approving so-called secondary legislation. These are laws a minister can approve because of powers delegated to them by other acts of parliament.
But 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 only take effect in mid-July.
The RMT said it would be impossible to run the network with agency workers, particularly because the greatest disruption is set to be caused by a walkout by signalling staff, who are not easily replaced.
Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary, said it would be “absolutely impossible” to use agency workers to keep the railway running.
The union emphasises that because the greatest disruption is set to be caused by a walkout by signalling staff, who are not easily replaced. It warns the strike — the biggest for more than 30 years — will continue until its pay demands are met. The RMT’s members voted for a six-month strike mandate in May, leaving the possibility of more strikes in the summer and autumn.
But 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. Simon Clarke, chief secretary to the Treasury, insisted that the government wanted a “sensible” pay increase: “No one is suggesting there’s some kind of pay freeze required here,” he told BBC Breakfast on Monday morning.
He apologised for the “misery” facing commuters and insisted the government was not actively looking for a fight with the trade unions.
“Ultimately this is a matter between the employers, the train operating companies and Network Rail, and the trade unions and the government doesn’t sit directly as a part of those talks,” Clarke said.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, has accused the RMT of “gunning” for strikes that would be “punishing millions of innocent people, instead of calmly discussing the sensible and necessary reforms we need to make in order to protect our rail network”.
The opposition Labour party has demanded the government hold last-ditch talks with the unions to avert strike action.
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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