The leader of the train drivers’ union has angrily attacked the Transport Secretary after he criticised a planned strike on the eve of the Eurovision Song Contest final for its impact on Ukraine.
Union members will walk out on May 12 as part of a long-running dispute over pay, as well as on May 31 and June 3, the day of the FA Cup final.
Mark Harper said on Sky he would have thought rail workers would want to stand in solidarity with their counterparts in Ukraine, which was due to host the Eurovision final before it was switched to Liverpool because of the invasion by Russia.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, said Mr Harper’s accusation was “bizarre”, implying that the union was not standing in solidarity with Ukraine.
He said: “Of all the accusations I have ever heard, 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.
“We were visiting workers in that country when Mr Harper and his pals in the Tory party were still pocketing hundreds of thousands of pounds from Russian oligarchs close to Mr Putin.
“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, and we are not even on strike on the day of the contest anyway.
“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.
“Seeking a pay increase has nothing whatsoever to do with Ukraine.”
Mr Harper told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “Well, I think it’s very damaging that the rail unions are calling strikes specifically targeting the Eurovision Song Contest.
“I’ve met with the head of Ukrainian Railways and Ukrainian Railways have been specifically targeted by Vladimir Putin, rail workers have been 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, is not our song contest.
“We’re 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.”