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Within striking distance?

Within striking distance?


Britain is in the middle of yet more train strikes. How close are the unions and the rail companies to a deal?

“We’ll be taking continuous industrial action for more than four weeks. Despite every effort made by our negotiators, it is clear now that the government is directly interfering in our attempts to reach a settlement.”

Mick Lynch, Sky News

It is, by now, a familiar tale.

“This latest round of strikes will show how important our members are to the running of the country and will send a clear message that we want a good deal on job security, pay and conditions for our people.”

Mick Lynch, Sky News

Widespread industrial action, which has made an unlikely celebrity out of Mick Lynch, the head of the RMT union…

“We’ve woken up working people to the fact that they’re being ripped off, that they’re underpaid, and their conditions are under threat right across our economy and right across our society.”

Mick Lynch, Sky News

…and caused chaos for commuters.

“For now I’m actually stuck, so I have to change my plan right now. Because I have to take a bus instead to go to London.”

Sky News

Since May 2022, the RMT – or the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union – has been striking over pay and working conditions. 

And other unions that also represent railway workers have joined them.

The RMT is officially negotiating with two main groups, Network Rail, which is responsible for tracks and other infrastructure, and the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators.

But Mick Lynch says it’s ministers who really hold the power, because the pay offers are contingent on government rail reforms that will affect staffing and working practices being forced through.

“It is impossible to find a negotiated settlement when the dead hand of the government is presiding over and blocking a resolution in these talks.”

Mick Lynch, Sky News

So what makes some people think we could be close to a deal?

Network Rail’s latest offer was a 5 per cent pay rise for 2022 – backdated to last January – with another 4 per cent at the start of 2023 and a guarantee of no compulsory job losses until January 2025.

That proposal was rejected by 64 per cent of the RMT’s members.

But a glimmer of hope came earlier this week when the chief negotiator for Network Rail, Tim Shoveller, said a deal wasn’t far away.

“We want to make sure we work with the RMT now to make clarifications where there have been misunderstandings and put the deal out again… We only need 2000 people who voted no last time to change their vote, and the deal will pass. So we think that’s within touching distance.”

BBC Radio 4 Today

Meanwhile, the Sun newspaper has been briefed that a new package for train drivers worth 4 per cent for two consecutive years is being thrashed out by rail firms, which would be worth £2,000 extra per year.

But we’ve been here before.

At the start of November, the RMT called off strike action after it said it had secured “intensive negotiations” with rail bosses.

And that came to nothing.

“Network Rail has failed to make an improved offer on jobs, pay and conditions for our members during the last two weeks of talks. At the same time the Rail Delivery Group representing the train operating companies has also broken a promise to make a meaningful offer on pay and conditions and even cancelled negotiations that were due to take place yesterday with one hour’s notice.”

Mick Lynch, Sky News

At first glance Tim Shoveller’s claims to be close to a deal may seem like it’s sending a message to the RMT. 

But it’s just as possible it’s a shot at the government as well. 

Because Mick Lynch claims it’s not just him, but rail bosses too, who are tired of the government’s stubbornness.

“The most senior people in the industry are as frustrated as we are that the government will not facilitate a settlement, and indeed is taking the opposite tack of undermining efforts to get a settlement.”

Mick Lynch, Sky News

The government denies that and says it wants a settlement that’s fair for taxpayers as well as rail workers.

“There is not a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money here. The taxpayers put a huge amount of investment into the rail industry over the last few years when it was hit with a huge impact from the pandemic when people weren’t travelling.”

Transport Secretary Mark Harper, Sky News

The rail strikes are probably closer to ending than they were a few months ago. After all, two unions have already accepted pay increases and it’s hoped another union representing drivers will accept the revised deal from operators.

That would leave the RMT isolated while the government focuses on doing a deal with nurses, who are also striking, and have more public support.

But Mick Lynch’s union seems to be in it for the long haul.

“We’ve had four weeks of continuous action up until today… Hopefully there’ll be some dialogue but if there’s not we’ve got a mandate to continue through into late spring and early summer.”

Mick Lynch on Euston picket line

Months of disruption could still lie ahead.

This episode was written and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.