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Battle lines drawn as strike halts train services

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-06-22 10:15

Striking railway workers form a picket line outside Preston Station, in England on Tuesday, during the first in a series of national rail strikes. JASON CAIRNDUFF/REUTERS

Union accuses UK govt of escalating action while minister says 'door open'

The first of three planned days of strike action on Britain's national railway network for more than 30 years brought services to a near-total standstill on Tuesday, with signs that the disruption in a dispute over pay and jobs could be the first shot in a long industrial war.

Members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, know as the RMT, want a pay rise of at least 7 percent to deal with the cost of living crisis.

The union says employers have offered no more than 3 percent, provided they accept job cuts and changed working practices as the rail sector continues to recover from the huge economic impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic, when passenger numbers and revenue streams plummeted, and the government had to provide significant financial support.

Last-minute talks to avert the strike action, scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday this week, with a significant impact on the days in between, broke up on Monday after RMT general secretary Mick Lynch says Network Rail had talked about compulsory redundancies.

Network Rail is the owner and infrastructure manager of the British railway network. It has no shareholders and is described as being a "public sector arm's length body" which reports to the Department for Transport.

"They have issued me a letter saying that there are going to be redundancies starting from July 1," Lynch explained. "So rather than trying to come to an agreement in this dispute, they've escalated it by giving us formal notice of redundancy amongst our Network Rail members."

Speaking to the Cabinet on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the strikes "wrong and unnecessary," and hinted to the public that the government would not change its position, despite the likelihood this could lead to more strike action.

"We need, I'm afraid, everybody-and I say this to the country as a whole-we need to get ready to stay the course," he said. "These reforms, these improvements in the way we run our railways are in the interests of the traveling public, they will help to cut costs for farepayers up and down the country."

Lynch told the BBC his workers apologized to the public for having to take action and cause disruption, but said that the government had actively prevented employers and the union from reaching a settlement, a claim rejected by ministers.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps called demands for him to be at the negotiating table "a stunt", adding that there was a "pay offer on the table, the door is open".

"The reality is they're using it as a camouflage for the fact they've walked out of the talks that they should be in with their employers," he told BBC Breakfast.

London's underground network has also been affected by an unrelated walkout by RMT workers on the same day, in a separate pay dispute.

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