Britain’s two main railways unions have warned strikes will last into the summer unless the government and industry come up with new offers on pay and reform, as passengers and business faced more disruption this week.
As a walkout by members of the RMT disrupted most of the network on Tuesday, the union’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, said he would reballot for a new strike mandate if necessary when the current one expired in May. Mick Whelan, head of train drivers’ union Aslef, said his members were “in this for the long haul” ahead of their planned walkout on Thursday.
Senior government and industry figures in contrast expressed optimism they could reach deals with both unions to end the strikes with talks scheduled to restart next week.
The strike on Tuesday by the RMT, which is in dispute with both Network Rail and a group of train operating companies over pay, changes to working practices and possible job losses, led to the cancellation of more than 80 per cent of rail services.
The RMT, the biggest rail union, plans further strikes on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, with passengers also facing severe disruption on Thursday when Aslef members are set to strike in their own dispute over pay.
Senior government figures said there was evidence of falling support for the walkouts among RMT members, while Network Rail’s lead negotiator Tim Shoveller said a deal could be “within touching distance”, but only if the RMT puts a rejected pay and reform offer back to members.
Members last month rejected a 9 per cent pay rise over two years, which was tied to big changes to working practices. “We want to make sure we can work with the RMT now to make clarification where there have been misunderstandings, and put the deal out again,” Shoveller told the BBC.
Industry executives believe parts of the deal — notably around changes to contracts for maintenance staff — were mis-sold to members by the union, a charge the RMT rejects.
One senior executive added there were welcome signs of “possible solutions” in the dispute with Network Rail. But there was less optimism among senior managers about imminent deals in the two sets of talks between train operating companies and the RMT and Aslef.
Mark Harper, the transport secretary, urged unions to resume negotiations and “get off the picket line”. He told the BBC: “There is a fair and reasonable offer on the table that is comparable to the sort of pay deals that people listening to this programme are getting across the economy.”
Business leaders warned of the rising cost of the disruption to rail services at a time of economic turmoil. UKHospitality, the trade body for hotels, pubs and restaurants, estimated the sector has lost £2.5bn in sales since the strikes started last summer.
“The threat today of five more months of disruption will dent consumer confidence and forward bookings, meaning the collateral damage to sectors like hospitality will be far greater and long lasting,” said its chief executive, Kate Nicholls.
The Night Time Industries Association said a fifth of trade was lost over the festive period because of strikes and the rising cost of living.
But economists were sceptical that the industrial action would have a material effect on the main measures of economic performance such as gross domestic product.
Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said, “it’s really hard to see any macro impact from strikes since the 1980s in the GDP data. A major public sector walkout in 2011 had no discernible impact on GDP”.
Much of activity that would have taken place but has been cancelled, such as pub and restaurant visits, would be displaced from one period or location to another, he added.
Jagjit Chacha, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said that people would mostly respond to the rail strikes by taking a longer new year break or working from home.