UK ministers blocked a possible deal to call off this month’s rail strikes by preventing the industry from offering unions higher pay deals and adding tough new conditions at the last minute.
Employers had planned to offer a 10 per cent pay rise over two years to the RMT union, but were blocked by the government, which controls the industry’s finances, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Instead, 14 train operating companies offered an 8 per cent two-year pay rise, tied to a series of tough reforms in a deal which the RMT rejected within hours on Sunday evening.
In a separate dispute, infrastructure owner Network Rail offered a 9 per cent two-year rise, which the RMT has put to a vote but urged its members to reject.
The union plans a wave of strike action, starting on Tuesday, and rail companies have warned passengers not to attempt to travel unless “absolutely necessary” on December 13, 14, 16 and 17.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch on Thursday said the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the train companies, had suddenly been told by the government last weekend to ask unions to agree also to a widespread move to “driver-only operation” across the network — where drivers instead of guards operate the doors on all carriages.
The RDG declined to comment. Network Rail boss Andrew Haines this week said he believed the government had given “enough leeway” to find a deal.
One industry figure described the intervention as “a clumsy mis-step” that exacerbated the situation.
Lynch said the change was so unacceptable for the union that “they might as well have come in with a fish and slapped me round the chops with it”.
“There is no prospect of a resolution. Not at the moment,” he added.
Transport secretary Mark Harper this week did not deny that the government had asked for the extra conditions to be put into the deal.
The government has long insisted that it sets the parameters for the industry’s negotiators, but does not directly intervene in negotiations. With the rail industry’s finances hit badly by the pandemic, it has called on unions to accept the reforms and pay rises and to call off the strikes.
The Department for Transport said the deal rejected by the RMT was an “improved” settlement and a “good offer for their membership that provides a significant uplift in pay and assurances around compulsory redundancies”.
It added: “We’ve been clear from the outset that reforms to work practices are a necessary part of this deal, in order to fund the pay offer and modernise the railways.
“The prime minister, chancellor and transport secretary remain in full agreement about the offer that was put on the table this week.”
The rail strikes come as the UK is hit by a wave of industrial action. Air passengers face the prospect of disruption as Border Force staff, who check passports, will strike for eight days over the Christmas period.
The government has earmarked about 600 soldiers to stand in for the workers and warned visitors to the UK to “think carefully” about their travel plans over the festive period.
Home secretary Suella Braverman on Thursday warned that the military would only be able to help “to a degree” with the Border Force walkout.
“I really want to urge people who have got plans to travel . . . to think carefully about their plans,” she said, adding that travellers should expect delays, she said.
Growing public sector anger at below-inflation pay offers has seen NHS staff, fire fighters, teachers and Royal Mail staff planning or considering strike action over the Christmas period.
In an effort to blunt the impact of walkouts across the public sector, ministers are expected this month to formally request hundreds more army personnel to fill in for fire brigade and NHS staff.
Downing Street conceded on Thursday that the strikes would be “disruptive” for the military personnel called in to “backfill some of these vital roles we need to keep the country moving”. In total, more than 1,000 troops may be asked to step in over this festive season.
Additional reporting by William Wallis