UK rail strikes: union boss slams ministers for 'sitting on hands and blocking deal'

Parts of Britain's rail network will be brought to a standstill this week as people head back to work

Rail strikes are set to cause major disruption this week as millions of workers head back to work. Getty
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A rail union boss has accused UK government ministers of “sitting on their hands” and blocking a deal ahead of the next round of walkouts, which are expected to affect millions of passengers.

Seven months on from the beginning of industrial action, unions representing tens of thousands of disgruntled workers have yet to reach a deal with the government.

As Britons prepare to head back to work this week following the Christmas and New Year break, people are being advised to work from home where possible due to fresh industrial action.

Around 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union, who are employed by Network Rail, and 14 train operating firms will join the picket line on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

A one-day strike on Thursday by drivers represented by the Aslef union will cripple services.

The action will significantly reduce services and just one in five journeys are expected to go ahead.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch, who has for months maintained a tough line on the Tory government’s response to the strikes, on Monday said he remains hopeful a deal can be reached. But he said that since mid-December the union has not heard anything from No 10.

“It’s been radio silence since then,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said the union had outlined to employers and government officials “what we need to do to make progress”.

UK strikes - in pictures

“They fully understand that, these are experienced people that we’re dealing with,” he added. “But the government simply will not give a mandate to the employers, Network Rail and the train operators that will allow this deal to be resolved.”

He accused ministers of blocking a deal that would resolve the dispute centred on jobs, pay and conditions for rail workers.

“They’re sitting on their hands,” he said.

“They keep saying that they’re facilitating a deal. And I think it’s absolutely the opposite to that – they’ve put a block on the deal and they’re an obstacle rather than a facilitator, which is unfortunate.”

The RMT said that despite its best efforts over the Christmas period, rail employers have not arranged any formal negotiations to resolve the dispute.

Rishi Sunak’s government denied claims it had become the main stumbling block to ending the deadlock.

“Both Network Rail and the Rail Delivery Group are being directly blocked by government ministers from producing an acceptable proposal on job security, pay and working conditions,” the RMT union said. “RMT remains available around the clock for talks so all parties can come to a negotiated settlement.”

The union said the position was in stark contrast to other areas of the railway where the Department for Transport does not have a mandate.

The union said it has secured deals with Scotrail, Transport for Wales, contracts on Eurostar and areas where the railway is under the control of metro mayors.

Mr Lynch accused No 10 of “blocking the union’s attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with the rail employers” and said his union had “achieved deals across the network in 2021 and 2022 where the DfT has no involvement”.

He described the current dispute as being dogged by “an unprecedented level of ministerial interference”, which he claimed was “hamstringing rail employers from being able to negotiate a package of measures with us”.

“We will continue our industrial action campaign while we work towards a negotiated resolution,” he said.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said members of the public “have rightly had enough of rail strikes and want the disruption to end.”

“The government has demonstrated it is being reasonable and stands ready to facilitate a resolution to rail disputes,” they added. “It’s time the unions came to the table and played their part as well.

“Inflation-matching pay increases for all public-sector workers would cost everyone more in the long-term – worsening debt, fuelling inflation, and costing every household an extra £1,000.

“Unions should step back from this strike action so we can start 2023 by ending this damaging dispute.”

The train drivers’ strike on Thursday will affect 15 operators and bring large parts of the UK rail network to a standstill.

Daniel Mann, director of industry operations at the Rail Delivery Group, advised passengers to avoid all but essential travel and said if they have to take a train they should check in advance if it will run.

“This dispute will only be resolved by agreeing the long overdue reforms to working arrangements needed to put the industry on a sustainable footing, rather than unions condemning their members to losing more pay in the new year,” he said.

Updated: January 02, 2023, 7:23 PM