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Monday, February 6, 2023

UK Train strikes: Christmas vacations turn into vexation

Why are railway workers on strike in UK?

UK train Worker Unions are in dispute with the government and rail companies over pay, job cuts and changes to conditions.

Unions say any wage offer should reflect the rising cost of living. But the rail industry is under pressure to save money after the pandemic left a hole in its finances.

Bosses say reforms need to be agreed to increase pay and modernize the railways.

Network Rail plans to cut 1,900 jobs as part of changes to the way its maintenance teams work – although it insists most of this could be achieved by people leaving voluntarily.

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The RMT does not agree with some of the changes and wants a guarantee that there will be no mandatory job cuts.

But what deal was offered to the railway workers?

Network Rail has offered a 5% pay rise this year and 4% in 2023.

But RMT union boss Mick Lynch called the deal “substandard” and its members rejected it.

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The union also rejected an offer from the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) – which represents train companies. This included a pay rise of up to 8% over two years and a guarantee that there would be no compulsory redundancies until April 2024.

In exchange, she wanted a change of purpose or closed cash registers and Sunday work.

Train strikes and Widespread delays

Train passengers are bracing for major disruption this week as a series of strikes is set to bring Britain’s rail network to a standstill.

About 40,000 rail workers are walking out on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday as part of a long-running dispute over work, pay and conditions.

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It comes after members of Britain’s biggest rail union, the RMT, rejected new pay offers and vowed to fight on.

But the government says it will not back down, despite the “damage” done.

Most rail companies across Britain are likely to be affected and Network Rail has urged passengers to “only travel if absolutely necessary”.

Passengers are advised to check their train company’s website before departure, with delays and cancellations also likely on days around strikes.

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There are likely to be no early morning or late night services, with only one in five services operating between 7:30 and 18:30 GMT.

Source: UK Network Rail through BBC

The RMT has staged a series of strikes since the summer which has shut down much of the rail network in England, Scotland and Wales and threatens to hit businesses in the run-up to Christmas.

It comes as workers in many other industries, with bus drivers, Royal Mail workers, nurses and highway workers and baggage handlers also on strike this week.

Rail workers are calling for better conditions and pay rises to match the pace of inflation, with the cost of living rising at the fastest rate in more than 40 years.

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But the government has ruled out inflation-related pay rises and rail chiefs say major changes are needed to modernize the railway.

Network Rail, which runs Britain’s rail infrastructure, said on Monday the union was causing “unhappiness” after its members rejected a new pay deal.

Meanwhile, Transport Minister Mark Harper said rail strikes would be “very damaging”.

Mr Harper told the BBC he was “very disappointed” that the RMT had rejected the latest salary offer “out of hand” and that it was not a “bottomless pot” of money.

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“A fair and reasonable offer was made, we also need the reform to be approved at the same time,” he added.

But Mr Lynch said the Government was doing nothing to stop the walkouts and effectively wanted to ban such actions with tough new anti-strike laws.

“Our members, along with the entire trade union movement, will continue their campaign for a fair deal for workers, decent pay rises and good working conditions,” he said.

Emma Godivala, who runs York Gin Distillery, said the strikes had hit her business ahead of the vital Christmas trading period.

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The company closed one of its stores in York station because it didn’t think there would be any customers, and bookings for tasting events this week have also been cancelled.

“A lot of independent traders do most of their business at Christmas time, so it has a disproportionate effect because of the time of year,” she told the BBC.

Sarah Czarnecki, vice-chair of the Hospitality Association York, said some hotels in the city had seen bookings, conferences and meetings canceled “because of the nervousness of getting here and back”.

“Obviously what happened in the week before Christmas is going to hurt as everyone tries to shore up their bank balance to get through the first quarter of next year,” she said.

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The RMT is involved in two bargaining battles, one with Network Rail, where it represents around 20,000 signalmen and maintenance workers, and the other with the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), where it represents around 20,000 workers across 14 rail companies.

Last week the union rejected an offer from Rail Delivery Group that would have given pay rises of 4% this year and another 4% next year, arguing it did not meet its criteria for pay or conditions.

Among other changes, this would mean closing or redistributing checkouts, more Sunday work and greater use of part-time contracts.

But Mr Lynch said it would mean “the loss of thousands of jobs” and the use of “unsafe practices”.

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Meanwhile, 63.6% of RMT members at Network Rail who voted on Monday rejected the deal, which would have given them a 5% pay rise this year and a 4% rise in 2023.

The union said the offer was “non-standard” and depended on major changes to working practices as well as the loss of 1,900 jobs, although Network Rail insisted the cuts could be achieved voluntarily.

After this week’s outings, RMT members in both groups will strike again on 3-4. January and 6-7 January.

In addition, Network Rail members will strike from 6.30pm on Christmas Day until 6am on December 27.

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Mr Lynch called on the Prime Minister to meet him and try to resolve the dispute.

But on Monday, official spokesman Rishi Sunak said: “We are not trying to impose government beyond the independent wage review process or ongoing discussions between employers and unions.

“We’re not going to change the process.”

On Monday, ministers discussed contingency plans for upcoming strikes, including the use of the military and civil servants to cover Border Force staff, at an emergency Cobra meeting.

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Armed forces will also be deployed at hospitals ahead of an ambulance strike, the government says.

But Downing Street warned there would still be serious disruption, adding that the country faced a “challenging number of days”.

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