Rail union threatens national strikes if pay is frozen

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The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), the UK’s largest specialist transport sector union, has threatened national industrial action if the government imposes a pay freeze across the rail industry.

Rail franchises were suspended in March 2020 at the onset of the Covid crisis meaning that services are in effect being run by the state. However, passenger numbers have fallen to about 15% of normal figures and by April 2021 the taxpayer bailout of train services will have amounted to more than £10bn.

The situation has led transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris to write to the bosses of the UK’s 22 rail operators to tell them there is no budget to increase wages for 62,000 workers. He wrote that the subsidies flowing into the industry were unsustainable. Rail chiefs are reported to have accepted that a two-year pay freeze will be imposed, given that chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a public sector pay freeze in November 2020, excluding NHS workers.

However, RMT general secretary Mick Cash condemned the letter: “Transport workers who are risking their lives keeping our country moving have found out they have been stabbed in the back by the government who have extended the public sector pay freeze to the transport sector. At the same time it’s business as usual for the private companies who will continue to be able to rake in profits.

“RMT will have no hesitation in supporting national coordinated action to deliver our members the pay rise they deserve,” he warned.

The Department for Transport stated the government had come up with an unprecedented support package to keep services running and protect frontline jobs.

It added: “It would be unfair to increase the burden on taxpayers by funding rail industry pay rises, and we would only consider increases in exceptional circumstances. We are immensely grateful to everyone that has worked so hard to keep the railway running, but our focus must be protecting jobs, services and taxpayers through this unprecedented period.”

Meanwhile, the RMT is in dispute with Isle of Wight ferry operator Wightlink over pensions, with staff voting for a strike on various dates between April and June. Wightlink’s plans to close the defined benefit (DB) pension scheme to existing employees and reintroduce flexible working practices seen in the first six months of the pandemic led the union to ballot members in December. A large majority backed industrial action, said the union.

Cash said: “Senior management at Wightlink are exploiting the second wave of the crisis by trying to force through permanent contractual changes and pension cuts which my members have rejected.” He added that he believed Wightlink was turning down the opportunity to access public funding offered to Solent ferry operators in January 2021.

Wightlink chief executive Keith Greenfield said he was disappointed the union had announced strike plans while consultation was under way and added: “Wightlink is consulting with its employees on how to protect jobs and ensure it survives the serious financial crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our proposal covers changes to pensions, including a doubling of company pension contributions for the majority of colleagues, and flexible working to help Wightlink become a more sustainable business. This proposal avoids compulsory redundancies or pay cuts.”

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