What do striking RMT rail workers want?

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has been the voice of the striking workers. Credit: PA

Rail workers are once again marching out on strike, amid a wave of industrial action expected to trigger widespread travel disruption this Christmas.

The latest attempts to bring a long-running row over jobs, pay and conditions to an end have failed.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union at Network Rail and 14 train companies consequently confirmed their intention to stage a mass industrial walkout.

The strike's effects are set to be felt across rail networks nationwide over the festive holiday period, with train travellers being warned to expect severe disruption.

RMT workers at Network Rail will strike from 6pm on Christmas Eve until 6am on December 27, disrupting getaway journeys and maintenance work.

Other unions with smaller rail worker memberships are also involved in the wider dispute, including Unite, which represents electrical control room operators.

Unite accepted Network Rail's pay offer and called off its members' planned December and January industrial action.

The Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) suspended its strike action while its members vote on the deal.

A calendar showing upcoming dates of disruption for rail passengers. Credit: Network Rail

Network Rail has accused RMT of "playing politics" and holding out while other unions agree deals.

But the RMT claims the offers being put on the table are contingent on government rail reforms affecting staffing and working conditions being forced through - which the union's membership has repeatedly rejected.

But what are the striking rail workers asking for, and what are rail company bosses and the government saying?

A 'real terms pay cut'Rail workers have rejected pay offers that have failed to keep pace with inflation, which has sent the everyday cost of living surging at the highest levels in 40 years.

In its latest offer, Network Rail had put a 5% pay rise for this year on the table – backdated to January – with another 4% at the start of 2023 and a guarantee of no compulsory job losses until January 2025.

The RMT this week said 64% of its members who voted rejected the proposal.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

The union has criticised recent deal offers, saying thousands of job losses and “significant” changes to working practices came attached.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch and the RMT have also criticised rail bosses' pay packets, and the companies' profits - accusing them of profiteering while asking workers to take a 'real terms pay cut' amid soaring inflation.

Mr Lynch has also accused the government of incentivising rail companies to refuse a higher pay settlement, and of trying to stamp out industrial action more broadly.

“The government is refusing to lift a finger to prevent these strikes and it is clear they want to make effective strike action illegal in Britain,” he said on Tuesday.

“We will resist that and our members, along with the entire trade union movement, will continue their campaign for a square deal for workers, decent pay increases and good working conditions.”

Changes to working practices

The RMT said the most recent offer came with a 50% cut in scheduled maintenance tasks and a 30% increase in 'unsocial hours.'

The union is concerned about key points of the latest deal's terms, including mandatory Sunday working, and the introduction of flexible working contracts and rosters.

Mr Lynch has said the conditions being offered during talks were not meeting the RMT's criteria for securing a settlement on long-term job security or protecting working conditions.  

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch claims 'ideologists' in Whitehall are the obstacle to a deal with rail firms

Driver-only trains

Driver-only operation (DOO) means a train's driver is in control of opening and closing the train’s doors.

It is already used by some rail companies, but is a controversial issue due to concerns about what it means for the role of guards, who say their role is vital to passenger safety.

Mr Lynch has said the RMT "cannot, and never will" accept the implementation of DOO, as union members do not believe the move is a safe way to operate the railways.

Rail guards have for years rallied to defend their jobs, saying they help elderly and disabled passengers, lead evacuations and emergencies, and assist drivers and platform staff.

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has said proposing a move to DOO, where drivers operate the doors on all carriages: "does not mean removing staff from onboard trains. It allows staff on board to focus on other safety issues and looking after customers on board with journey advice, selling tickets etc.

“The aim would be to see this extended across more areas of the network – where appropriate technology and rolling stock allows – to improve safety of train dispatch and provide greater resilience in times of disruption.”

RMT members at a picket line during a strike over work pay. Credit: PA

What does the RMT say?Mr Lynch apologised for the impact of rail strikes on passengers this Christmas.

But the union leader said the RMT could not promise there would be no more strikes in 2023 - saying he "hoped not," but at this stage there was "no deal in sight."

He added: “We don’t like disrupting the public and we apologise for the disruption that’s being caused.

“I believe we could have worked towards a settlement a couple of weeks ago until that was undermined by the stance that certain people have taken.

“So we do apologise and we hope that people can amend their plans and get to where they need to go during this period, but they can be assured that we’re working to try and get an agreement so that we can end this dispute.

“Many people of course that are travelling are also suffering similar things – health workers, postal workers, people working in all sorts of industries and sectors who are suffering the same issues of low pay, conditions being stripped out, and attacks on their job security.

“So if we can stick together across the working class we can maybe get some settlements that they can support and we can get back to work and run society in a better way.”

Planned rail strikes will cause widespread disruption right before Christmas. Credit: PA

What do rail bosses say?

Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines rejected a suggestion there had been a “failure of imagination” on the operator’s part to reach a deal to head off rail strikes.

Good Morning Britain presenter Richard Madeley put it to Mr Haines on Tuesday that there had been a “complete industrial relations failure” and a “failure of imagination”.

But Mr Haines said there had been settlements reached with other unions and accused the RMT of being “the common theme”.

He said: “I would suggest that the failure of imagination is with the RMT. They’re the ones who are not able to agree either in London, or with Network Rail, or with 14 different train operators.

“They are the common theme. We’ve been able to reach agreement, we’ve been able to use that imagination and reach settlement with two of their partner trade unions.”

Waves of rail strikes have been causing widespread disruption for months. Credit: PA

What is the government's stance on the rail strikes?

The government has been urging "pay restraint" amid a broader wave of industrial action.

Its stance is that higher wages will feed growing inflation - an economic position rejected by many of the striking unions.

The Prime Minister addressed the wave of strikes up and down the country as he opened Cabinet on Tuesday.

Rishi Sunak said the government was doing all it could to minimise disruption, but that the only way to stop it completely was for unions to go back to the table and calling off these strikes.

Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have vowed to get hundreds of thousands of Britons back to work Credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA

Speaking to ITV News on Monday, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt urged pay restraint- describing the government's focus as taming inflation by avoiding 'locking it in'.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper was repeatedly challenged on whether he had insisted on a condition requiring driver-only trains on Tuesday, as the rail strikes row failed to result in a deal.

Mr Harper told Sky News: “Reform of the rail industry has been on the table from the very beginning.”

He added: “The detailed negotiations between the employers and the trade unions are between them. The overall amount of money available is something that I have to set, the detail is up to them.

“Driver-only trains are not a new thing. They have been running since the 1980s.”

He insisted that “I haven’t been involved in the detailed negotiations between the train-operating companies and the trade unions” but “I made sure there was an offer on the table that I think should be accepted”.

Challenged on whether he wanted the strikes to go ahead by insisting on an amendment the RMT could not accept, Mr Harper said: “Quite the reverse, I don’t want these strikes to take place at all.”

He described the strikes as “bad for passengers, they are bad for businesses” and “not good for the rail industry going forward”.

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