A senior British rail industry executive has threatened to cut out the striking RMT union and go straight to staff to help push through reforms if there is no progress on talks to avoid more industrial action.
Some 40,000 RMT members at Network Rail, which owns the infrastructure, and 13 train operators will not work on Thursday, following a stoppage on Tuesday during which only about 20 per cent of services ran. They are also due to strike on Saturday.
Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines told the Financial Times there was a “really credible way to get out of this” if the RMT accepted sweeping modernisations, particularly on maintenance roles. “But they wouldn’t even talk about it,” he added.
He threatened to move to a company referendum on proposed maintenance changes, which he admitted would be escalatory and a last resort.
“If the RMT will not talk to us about maintenance productivity they should allow us to go straight to their members and cut them out.
“We don’t want to do it because it would be further escalation, but if we cannot stop this dragging on and on, something will have to give,” he said.
Giving staff a chance to have their say on proposed changes to working practices could pile pressure on the RMT leadership to back down and accept the changes.
While a staff referendum at state-owned Network Rail would not affect the train operators, the action by Network Rail staff is particularly damaging because they operate the infrastructure that keeps trains running.
Eddie Dempsey, a senior RMT executive, said he was “not too worried” at the prospect of a staff vote: “I don’t think it will do them any good.” He said maintenance staff were already very flexible and he did not expect them to back the company’s proposals.
But Mick Lynch, head of the RMT union, said earlier he would not negotiate while the threat of forced redundancies hung over his members. He has previously said he could accept some modernisations, if agreed with unions.
Network Rail wrote to the RMT on Monday that it was going ahead with 1,800 job losses, “the vast majority” of which would be voluntary, and with changes to working practices.
Lynch blamed the government and transport secretary Grant Shapps for refusing to allow Network Rail to back down from the “threat”.
“Grant Shapps has wrecked these negotiations by not allowing Network Rail to withdraw their letter threatening redundancy for . . . our members,” Lynch said.
Shapps responded in a statement: “This is a total lie from the RMT and its general secretary. I have had absolutely nothing to do with either the issuing of a letter from Network Rail, the employer, to the RMT — or any request to withdraw it.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Boris Johnson to “get round” the negotiating table and “get the trains running” at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons.
But Johnson said it was for the train companies to hold talks with the RMT, adding that Starmer “hasn’t even got the gumption” to speak out against the strikes.
‘The world has changed’: rail strike’s uneven impact on Britain’s workers
In contrast to the firm line on pay awards, ministers have this week confirmed that the basic state pension will rise next April by the rate of inflation in September, which is likely to be close to 10 per cent.
The government is confronting public sector pay demands on other fronts: the UK’s main teaching unions are also threatening strike action this autumn unless they are granted a 12 per cent rise.
As well as no compulsory job losses, the RMT leadership is pushing for pay rises of 7 to 8 per cent to compensate for inflation that hit 9.1 per cent in May, a 40-year high.
The TSSA union, which represents clerical, supervisory and station staff, said on Wednesday that its members at Merseyrail had voted to accept a 7.1 per cent pay deal in a separate negotiation, calling it “a sensible outcome to a reasonable offer”.
Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary, said the deal showed unions were “in no way a block on finding the solutions needed to avoid a summer of discontent on the railways”.
Merseyrail is controlled by the Labour-led Liverpool City Region combined authority and is not part of the national franchise system.
Many people avoided disruption on Tuesday by working from home. The average office occupancy in London dropped sharply to just 9 per cent, said Freespace, the office services provider, down from 42 per cent the week before.
Average office occupancy across the UK on Wednesday was higher, at 22 per cent, but this was almost half the level of the week before.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard