A top executive in the British rail industry has threatened to cut the striking RMT union and go straight to employees to help push reforms if there is no progress in negotiations to prevent further industrial action.
About 40,000 RMT members at Network Rail, which owns the infrastructure, and 13 train operators will not operate on Thursday, following a shutdown on Tuesday, during which only about 20% of services operated. They are also expected to go on strike on Saturday.
Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines told the Financial Times there was a “really credible way out of this” if the RMT accepted comprehensive modernizations, particularly in the maintenance functions. “But they didn’t even talk about it,” he added.
He threatened to move to a company referendum on the proposed maintenance changes, which he admitted would be escalated and a last resort.
“If the RMT doesn’t talk to us about maintenance productivity, they should allow us to go straight to their members and cut them.
“We don’t want to do that because it would be an even bigger escalation, but if we can’t stop it, something’s going to have to give,” he said.
Giving staff a chance to have their say on proposed changes to working practices can increase pressure on RMT leadership to step back and accept the changes.
While a referendum by the state-owned Network Rail team would not affect train operators, the Network Rail team’s action is particularly damaging because they operate the infrastructure that keeps trains running.
Eddie Dempsey, a senior executive at RMT, said he wasn’t “very worried” about the prospect of a staff vote: “I don’t think it’s going to do them any good.” He said the maintenance team was already very flexible and did not expect them to support the company’s proposals.
But Mick Lynch, head of the RMT union, previously said he would not negotiate as the threat of forced layoffs hung over its members. He previously said that he could accept some modernizations if agreed with the unions.
Network Rail wrote to RMT on Monday that it was moving forward with 1,800 layoffs, “the vast majority” being voluntary, and with changes to work practices.
Lynch blamed the government and Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps for refusing to allow Network Rail to back off from the “threat”.
“Grant Shapps ruined these negotiations by not allowing Network Rail to withdraw its letter threatening redundancy for . . . our members,” Lynch said.
Shapps responded in a statement: “This is a total lie by the RMT and its secretary general. I had absolutely nothing to do with Network Rail, the employer, issuing a letter to the RMT – or any request to withdraw it.”
Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer has urged Boris Johnson to “walk around” the negotiating table and “set the trains in motion” on the prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons.
But Johnson said it was up to the rail companies to talk to the RMT, adding that Starmer “didn’t even have the courage” to speak out against the strikes.
‘The world has changed’: the uneven impact of the railway strike on Britain’s workers
In contrast to the firm line on wage premiums, ministers confirmed this week that the basic state pension will rise in April close to the inflation rate in September, which is likely to be close to 10%.
The government is tackling public sector wage demands on other fronts: the UK’s top teachers’ unions are also threatening a strike this autumn unless they receive a 12% raise.
Not only will there be no mandatory job losses, the RMT leadership is pushing for wage increases of 7 to 8 percent to offset inflation that hit 9.1 percent in May, a 40-year high.
The TSSA union, which represents administrative, supervisory and station workers, said on Wednesday that its Merseyrail members had voted to accept a 7.1% wage settlement in a separate negotiation, calling it “a sensible outcome for a reasonable offer”.
Manuel Cortes, secretary general of the TSSA, said the agreement shows that unions “are not an obstacle to finding the necessary solutions to avoid a summer of discontent on the railways”.
Merseyrail is controlled by the combined Labour-led Liverpool City Region authority and is not part of the national franchise system.
Many people avoided interruptions on Tuesday by working from home. Average office occupancy in London has dropped sharply to just 9%, office services provider Freespace said, down from 42% a week earlier.
Average office occupancy across the UK on Wednesday was higher, at 22%, but that was almost half the previous week’s level.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard