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Six months of rail strikes in war of 'attrition'

·6-min read
Rail strikes
Rail strikes

Rail unions have threatened to continue striking until Christmas, ahead of the biggest shutdown of the train network in almost 30 years.

As last-ditch talks aimed at averting the strikes failed to make progress on Sunday, the RMT union stressed it had a "mandate" for six months of industrial action.

On the other side of the negotiations, rail bosses told The Telegraph they are now preparing for a war of “attrition” that could last for months. They revealed that they are drawing up plans to offer cash bonuses to signallers to cross picket lines.

More than 40,000 rail workers will walk out from Tuesday, crippling Britain’s transport network and threatening GCSE and A-level exams, as well as hospital appointments.

Economists have warned that the strikes on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday could knock 0.3 to 0.4 per cent off gross domestic product for June, with up to one in 20 people unable to go to work.

Other public sector unions are threatening to follow the rail workers and take industrial action, with teachers preparing to ballot for strike action if they do not receive a pay settlement close to inflation.

The National Education Union said that unless it received a pay offer closer to inflation by Wednesday it would be informing Nadim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, that it plans to ballot 450,000 members.

NHS workers could also walk out if a pay rise due to be announced this week does not keep pace with inflation – expected to reach 11 per cent this year.

Christina McAnea, the head of Unison, the country’s biggest union which counts NHS staff among its members, warned the Government that it faced a choice – make a “sensible pay award... or risk a potential dispute”

It is understood that the RMT's national executive will begin plotting the next round of rail strikes at the end of the week.

An union source said: “We have a mandate for strike action for six months. The National Executive Committee will decide what to do next. They will only meet after this week and then need to give the employers two weeks’ notice.”

The RMT can call strikes with only a fortnight’s notice up until the end of November, six months after the ballot results were returned at the end of May. Further industrial action after that would require a fresh vote.

The two sides in the rail dispute remained poles apart on Sunday, with further talks due to take place on Monday. The Telegraph has learned that Network Rail offered an initial two per cent pay rise and a demand for job cuts, while Mick Lynch, the RMT’s general secretary, revealed for the first time that he was demanding pay rises of at least seven per cent.

Asked if passengers should expect a "long fight", Mr Lynch told the i newspaper: “That may have to be the way that is, I hope that’s not the case, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence at the moment that it’s going to go any other way."

Network Rail said the company was now digging in for “a battle of attrition” that had echoes of the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s.

A Network Rail source said: “It is very unlikely these strikes will be a one-off. The RMT will meet after the strikes and decide what comes next and we assume there will be more disruption and more strike days. Then that moves the dispute into a battle of attrition.

“We are looking at paying RMT signallers extra money to break the strike. Nothing has been decided but there have been discussions about doing that.”

The size of the potential inducement is unclear, but Network Rail recognises that it would be a drastic step. The source said: “The risk of breakaway signallers being branded scabs and being targeted is very alive today. Offering bonuses to work is not something we are going to walk into lightly but certainly something we are looking at.”

Network Rail believes that if the strikes drag on, the resolve of RMT members will inevitably weaken. The rail company estimates that striking rail workers will lose about £1,200 over the three stoppage days and a further £650 annual bonus, equivalent to about five per cent of an average RMT salary.

Getting signallers to cross picket lines is key to breaking the strike. There are 4,000 RMT signallers on the network. About half will be needed to keep the trains running.

Next week, 400 contingency workers will be deployed as signallers, allowing about one in five trains to run on strike days.

On so-called shoulder days, Wednesday and Friday this week, Network Rail believes about 60 per cent of the usual 20,000 trains will be able to run.

In a round of media interviews on Sunday, Mr Lynch gave the first hint of his union’s pay demands. He told Sky News: “At the time of the Network Rail pay deal, which should have been done in December, it was 7.1 per cent, the Retail Price Index.

“That's what the cost of living would have been at the time these deals should have been struck, so we're going to negotiate to see if we can get a deal that reflects that cost of living.”

He also complained that railway bosses were trying to extend the 35-hour week for new workers, and demanded assurances there would be no compulsory redundancies.

However Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, accused the RMT of "gunning" for industrial action for weeks. He accused it of "punishing" millions of "innocent people" who will be affected by the strikes.

In an interview with Sky News, he added: "Of course, it is a reality that if we can't get these railways modernised, if we can't get the kind of efficiency that will mean that they can work on behalf of the travelling public, then of course it is jeopardising the future of the railway itself."

He has said that the Government will not become embroiled in the negotiations, accusing the RMT of “trying to create some sort of class war”.

Grant Shapps accused the RMT of 'gunning' for industrial action
Grant Shapps accused the RMT of 'gunning' for industrial action

For commuters forced onto the roads, the AA is predicting a surge in traffic - with motorways and suburban routes worst hit.

An AA route planner spokesman said: "Even though the strike is for three days, many travellers will give up on the trains for the whole week.

"It coincides with big events like Glastonbury and the Goodwood Festival of Speed, so drivers not going to those locations are advised to give the areas a wide berth.”

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