Rail union chief Mick Lynch has been urged by ministers not to “hold the country to ransom” with strikes ahead of Christmas as he blamed the Government for failing to avert the action.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary said on Tuesday that the unions have a duty to take co-ordinated action in response to a “generalised attack on working people”.
He confirmed there will be greater disruption on the railways on Christmas Eve because of a walkout from 6pm until 6am on December 27 following two 48-hour strikes next week.
Talks with the Rail Delivery Group over the long-running dispute on pay, jobs and conditions will still take place on Tuesday, as ambulance workers, nurses and Royal Mail staff plan strikes throughout the month.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner accused the “militant” Government of presiding over a “complete shambles” on the railways as she backed the workers’ right to strike.
Downing Street urged the RMT to accept a deal including a 4% pay rise to follow this year’s 5%, and no compulsory redundancies until 2025, rather than the union’s “unaffordable” double-digit demands.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said: “It’s incredibly disappointing that the RMT has chosen to take further damaging action instead of recognising this is a generous and fair deal that could have brought this dispute to an end.
“We believe the RMT need to take this offer seriously. We’ve been fair and reasonable in our approach.”
Government minister Nick Gibb told GB News the union must “call off this strike”, adding: “It’s inconveniencing people up and down the country in the run-up to Christmas. I think it’s a very poor way of conducting negotiations.
“We would urge the unions to talk to employers, to keep negotiating and not to hold the country to ransom, particularly in December as we get nearer to Christmas.”
Mr Lynch insisted he does not want strikes to go ahead before Christmas but argued that his members are being forced into action by the Government not allowing train operators a proper mandate to negotiate on pay and conditions.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We regret the inconvenience that we are causing but this inconvenience is being caused by the Government who are running the playbook and the strategy for the companies and directing what’s going on.
“They’ve held back even these paltry offers to the last minute so they know it’s very difficult to deal with these offers.”
He said there is always a wind-down of trains on Christmas Eve but, pressed whether there will be earlier disruption because of the action, he said “yes, there will be”.
“They will run up until the evening time,” he said.
“We don’t want this to happen at Christmas.
“If we don’t respond they will just assume the dispute is over and they’ve got their way so we have to respond to that. I hope the companies change their positions before the action takes place on December 13 and we can cancel the action – but I’ve been hoping for that all the summer.”
He argued that wages are being lowered against soaring inflation, which passed 11%, while conditions are being “ripped up”.
“It would be foolish of unions not to co-ordinate themselves in response to those attacks,” he told Today.
Ms Rayner argued that striking workers are not taking action at the “drop of a hat”, saying they will “lose their pay at a time when they will need it most” because of the action.
“This is a militant Government that is not dealing with the issues and not resolving this strike action and it’s frustrating,” she told BBC Breakfast.
“The system is absolutely crumbling without the strikes. Anyone who gets on a train now in the North knows that you’re praying if you’re going to get to where you need to get to. Many businesses are now losing staff because they can’t get to work.
“It’s a complete shambles of the Government’s making and they really need to get off their hands and resolve this.
“When I speak to the trade unions they’re very clear they do not want to go on strike, they want to resolve this dispute. It’s this Government that seems to want to ratchet it up and want to attack workers’ rights and cause this disruption.”
Downing Street was forced to defend delays to introducing laws to require minimum service levels on the railways that would limit the effects of strikes.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman blamed the pandemic for the delay to the legislation first promised in 2019 and insisted “it’s something we’re proceeding with as fast as parliamentary time allows”.
Pressed on whether the rapid churn of prime ministers and transport secretaries has played a role, he said: “I think the global pandemic was the largest impact on this legislation.”
Strikes are set to hit 14 train companies next week as the RMT has recommended its members should reject the latest offer from Network Rail.
Businesses expressed concern about the disruption during the typically highly-profitable period as both customers and staff struggle to make it in for the third year in a row, after the damage of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of industry body UKHospitality, said the action will be “hugely damaging”, adding: “We’re continuing to urge all parties involved in the negotiations to reach a solution imminently to avoid these harmful strikes.”
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