Unions condemn Government for rail dispute ‘provocations’

Railroad union leaders launched a fierce attack on the Government, accusing the ministers of driving the bitter dispute over jobs, wages and conditions and blocking agreements to resolve the dispute.

Former transportation secretary Grant Shapps was criticized by officials from the three unions when they testified before the Transportation Select Committee.

Mick Lynch, secretary general of the Railway, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), said the longstanding dispute was “engineered” by the Department of Transportation (DfT).

“This is Shapps’ project – it’s entrusted to us to settle the dispute,” he told lawmakers.

Frank Ward, interim general secretary of the Transportation Salaryed Personnel Association (TSSA), said that while he was transportation secretary, he had requested a meeting with Mr. Shapps but received no response.

“He wasn’t there,” he told the committee.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the Aslef train drivers union, was asked on a scale of one to 10 how close the situation was to a solution.

He replied: “I think you can include zero. We are further away than when we started.”

Mr. Whelan also criticized the way a proposal was made by the Rail Delivery Group last Friday afternoon, saying the proposal was first leaked to parts of the media and contained details that “smashed” deals with the union.

Mr. Lynch added: “We don’t have an agreement. We’re not close to that until we reach an agreement.”

He said nine clauses were added to a proposal made last month, calling it “sabotage” and accusing the DfT.

But Transport Minister Mark Harper later contradicted them, suggesting that the rail strikes could end soon.

Transport Minister Mark Harper

Transport Minister Mark Harper (PA)

In a pre-released clip from ITV’s Peston, he said: “Now that there is a renewed offer on the table, I hope this can happen, and we have seen confirmation today.

“The evidence presented to the Transport Select Committee that talks are ongoing between the various unions and companies and I hope we will make some progress in the coming days.”

Mr. Lynch and Mr. Whelan have made it clear that their union will never accept a driver-only operation (DOO) on railroads.

The RMT boss told the committee that “lots of damage” was done to the railroad because of the Government.

“Damage is designed and controlled in the Department of Transportation.

“This is their project, they knew there would be an industrial response from the unions, they decided to do what they thought would take a big step forward, and they provoked and attacked the workforce.

“So the damage at Whitehall was predicted by people who knew little about the railroad.

“Instead of trying to get the approval and evolution of the railroad, they took this big step forward and it blew in their face.”

Noting that the DfT had a “Stalinist obsession with central control,” he added: “The provocations we received from the DfT, provocations in language, and also what was put in the documents.

“You can also see from the way they operate the railway, when there was a Network Rail strike they closed Scotland and a large part of Wales and chose to operate the parts connecting to England – I think that’s pretty cynical. ”

Steve Montgomery of the Rail Delivery Group told the committee that talks with Aslef are “lagging behind” than with other unions, but added that there will be more talks on Thursday to reach an agreement.

He said the group needed to “get permission” from the Government before making proposals to resolve the dispute.

Network Rail chief negotiator Tim Shoveller rated the progress with RMT towards closing the dispute as seven out of 10, after a proposal was rejected last month.

If there are “very carefully targeted debates,” at least 50% of the RMT votes “have a chance” to accept a proposal, he said.

Mr Shoveller told the committee that more union members were working on strike days.

“We’ve certainly seen a lot of workers go back to work, both in maintenance and operations, in the recent strikes just before Christmas and especially after.

“It tends to be very localized, groups of people who will return rather than individuals on their own, but there is still a pattern we can see emerging.”

A Transport Ministry spokesman said: “Far far from postponing negotiations, this Government is committed to, on the one hand, helping unions and employers to reach an agreement and avoid further strikes, and on the other, to carry out much-needed reforms that will put our railway on a sustainable financial footing in the future.

“The industry has put forward fair and reasonable wage proposals, and to facilitate progress, the Government has held meetings between all parties to end this damaging dispute.”

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