Yesterday’s peace talks continue into today in a bid to avert a strike that could cost Britain £600m.
In terms of timing, next week’s proposed national rail strike, the first in 21 years, could hardly be worse.
Starting on Bank Holiday Monday, the planned day-long industrial action by 25,000 workers would cut short family outings , stranding day-trippers who do not travel home before the 5pm start time. Then, on Tuesday, millions of commuters are set to face travel chaos as they attempt to find an alternative way back to work.
The cost to the British economy is likely to be around £600m, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, which based its estimate on the likelihood of 10 per cent of the 31.1m workforce missing a day’s work.
“Construction and retail industries will be especially hard hit, as they can not make up the lost time like others,” said CEBR’s Oliver Hogan.
Meanwhile, London Chamber of Commerce chief executive Colin Stanbridge said that a bank holiday strike could cripple small businesses, “particularly those who rely on tourists and day trippers for trade.”
“Small businesses and traders, in particular, are severely impacted if staff are unable to make it into work – with fewer staff in a small business, each one counts,” he said.
The strike, which would be accompanied by a 48-hour ban on overtime and emergency call-outs, is the new Conservative government’s first major test of industrial relations. The decision to strike followed a comprehensive 4-1 vote in favour of the walkout from Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) members, well above the planned 50 per cent threshold proposed by the new government as part of union ballot reforms.
Yesterday, peace talks began at the conciliation service, Acas, between Network Rail and the rail unions RMT and Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), which also voted for the strike. But with both sides sticking firm to their views, in an increasingly bitter war of words, successful mediation could prove difficult. The talks reconvene today.
At issue are National Rail’s pay proposals, which have been rejected by the RMT for “falling well short of what is required to maintain the living standards, the job security and the working conditions” of its operations and maintenance staff. National Rail offered a four-year deal, with a £500 lump sum this year followed by three years of increases matching RPI inflation. The employer also promised no compulsory redundancies before December 2016.
But RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said the large vote for a strike, which would be the first to be held nationwide in a generation, reflected workers’ anger over the proposed deal.
“The two main sticking points are the lump sum, which is one-off and non-pensionable, so effectively it means no baseline pay rise and the unwinding of job protection. We are extremely concerned that the ‘no compulsory redundancy’ commitment only applies to the first two years of the four-year deal.”
Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail, said: “This strike is deliberately timed to cause maximum disruption to families trying to enjoy the half-term break and millions more returning to work after the bank holiday.
“I find it deplorable that the RMT can hold the travelling public to ransom in this way.”
Weekend reports of the high pay commanded by some of the striking National Rail workers appeared to add weight to the employer’s argument.
Pay figures revealed 146 signallers, controllers and control operators earn £80,000-100,000 a year, while nine earned over £100,000. Reports said that maintenance workers were paid £42,000 on average.
National Rail salaries have risen by 40 per cent in the past decade, the reports added, and have soared eight times faster than the public sector and twice as fast as the private sector in the past four years.
But Cash – whose £138,000 pay package was also highlighted – hit back, citing the fact that only 150 out of 25,000 were named as high earners.
“It’s easy in any industry to pick out the high earners,” he said. “But these are senior operational managers, who are highly in demand and could probably double those salaries if they worked overseas. The average pay is closer to £30-35,000, which is around the average UK earnings.
“We’re not defensive about the fact that people are getting decent rates of pay. We don’t want that undermined.
“The chief executive of National Rail earns £675,000 a year and jets around business class at public expense.
“We are talking here about men and women who work round the clock in often appalling conditions. We will take no lectures from the National Rail boardroom, or from the politicians, about to land salary increases of 10 per cent, about pay restraint.”