Commuters are facing strike misery nationwide after a militant union pressed for inflation-busting pay rises for thousands of Network Rail workers.
Having staged more than two years of protests over changes to the role of train guards, the Rail Maritime & Transport union has turned its attention to the rights of workers responsible for maintaining and repairing Britain’s rail tracks and signalling systems.
Negotiations have begun over a new pay settlement, with the government determined to persuade rail workers to accept smaller pay rises.
But ministers and Network Rail bosses have a battle on their hands with the RMT promising to ‘fight’ any attempts to ‘slap a pay cap on the rail workforce.’
The Rail Maritime & Transport union has turned its attention to the rights of workers responsible for maintaining and repairing Britain’s rail tracks and signalling systems
The issue is coming to a head as a two year 2.2 per cent pay deal linked to the retail prices index (RPI) measure of inflation at the time ends at the end of the year.
The RMT is understood to be pushing for a pay hike above RPI, which is currently running at 3.2 per cent.
Last night one MP accused the union of trying to ‘hold commuters to ransom’ in pursuit of ‘unreasonable’ pay demands.
Writing in the hard left Morning Star newspaper, the RMT’s general secretary Mick Cash threatened further industrial protests.
He said: ‘Current pay agreements on both Network Rail and London Underground come to an end at the end of December and the end of March respectively, and the union is shaping up its claims and preparing the ground for campaigns that protect and enhance our members’ pay and conditions in these days of austerity.
The RMT is understood to be pushing for a pay hike above RPI, which is currently running at 3.2 per cent. Last night one MP accused the union of trying to ‘hold commuters to ransom’ in pursuit of ‘unreasonable’ pay demands
‘We will fight against any attempts to slap a pay cap on the rail workforce that undermines pay, conditions and standards of living. RMT doesn’t underestimate its success as a trade union in this hostile environment.’
Transport secretary Chris Grayling has called for rail industry pay to be pegged to the lower consumer prices index measure of inflation – in line with public sector workers such as NHS staff and teachers.
The CPI is currently running at 2.5 cent.
Mr Grayling recently blamed spiralling wages for rail workers for fuelling another big increase in rail fares – also pegged to RPI – next January.
RPI has long been discredited as an inaccurate measure of the changing cost of living – with Bank of England governor Mark Carney describing it as having ‘no merit’ and the Office for National Statistics calling for it to be scrapped.
In a bid to put the brakes on surging rail fares, Mr Grayling has called for annual increases to be switched from RPI to CPI while calling on rail unions to do the same when negotiating pay rises.
But the RMT, which represents the majority of Network Rail’s 25,000 staff, has made it clear it has no intention of doing this.
The negotiations pose a stern challenge for Network Rail’s new £588,000 a year boss Andrew Haines, who recently move over from the Civil Aviation Authority.
A Network Rail spokesman said: ‘Network Rail has not yet received any pay claims from our trade unions in relation to our operations and maintenance employees, and negotiations are not expected to commence until the end of October’
Strikes orchestrated by the RMT and drivers’ union Aslef over the introduction of driver only trains – which remove the need for guards to open and close train doors – have already caused chaos for commuters in many parts of Britain.
A 24 hour strike on Northern rail by guards on Saturday resulted in the cancellation of more than seven in ten trains across the network, which stretches across Northern England.
But any strike by Network Rail workers – which carry out essential maintenance of the tracks and signalling systems – is likely to take place across the entire country.
Chris Philp, a Tory MP who has campaigned for tougher anti-strike laws, said: ‘It’s completely unacceptable to try to hold commuters to ransom in pursuit of a pay rise way higher than the average worker is receiving.
‘We can’t put a lid on rail fare increases until the unions pay demands become more reasonable.’
Driver’s union Aslef managed to negotiate a 28.5 per cent pay rise for its members over five years, taking their basic salary for a four day week from £49,000 to £63,000.
Meanwhile commuters have been told that the price of regulated fares including annual season tickets will rise by up to 3.2 per cent in January – in line with the Retail Price Index measure of inflation for July which was published earlier this month.
This will push up the price of many annual season tickets by hundreds of pounds.
A Network Rail spokesman said: ‘Network Rail has not yet received any pay claims from our trade unions in relation to our operations and maintenance employees, and negotiations are not expected to commence until the end of October.
‘Therefore any talk of industrial action at this stage is misleading.’