…says rail strikes this week ‘likely’ and insists government will not intervene in negotiations
UK Cabinet minister, Simon Clerke has expressed fears over potential rail strikes this week, and warned that workers must make sacrifices as the UK battles inflation.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said that while the government was not the legal employer of union members due to walk out, they could not expect “inflation-busting pay increases”.
“I fear it is likely that the strikes will go ahead,” said Mr Clarke. “Clearly we will continue to support the negotiations until such time is there’s no more time to discuss.
“But I think the public do this week need to be aware there will be very substantial disruption and it is therefore sensible to make preparations for that.”
The walk-out of 40,000 workers in the biggest rail strike for three decades threatens to bring travel chaos to commuters and choke roads with increased traffic.
Members of the RMT union are walking out in a dispute over pay, compulsory redundancies and safety concerns – as employers look to make savings on a network that has been propped up by taxpayers during the COVID crisis.
Reports suggest it could be just the start of what has been described as a summer of discontent, with teachers, nurses, doctors and postal workers also considering industrial action.
With inflation at a four-decade high, workers are being told to face up to a real term squeeze in their incomes, with salary increases lower than the 9% increase in the cost of living.
Mr Clarke reiterated a previous warning that to avoid an intensifying price spiral, wages would have to remain under control – though the RMT’s pursuit of a 7% pay increase is below inflation.
Shapps needs to “step up to the plate and take some responsibility” Shapps needs to
speak more widely about pay, he said: “If we are going to forestall the evil of inflation… then we are going to have to show collective, society-wide responsibility.
“I recognise there is sacrifice involved in this situation.”
Mr Clarke said the government was hoping that ongoing talks between employers and rail unions would make progress.
He added: “We want to see a resolution that works for everybody. That needs to work for rail workers but critically it needs to work for passengers and the taxpayer as well.
“The taxpayer supported the railway industry very substantially during the pandemic. We’re now coming out of that, we need the railway to be a sustainable force in our country. It isn’t. Those changes need to be secured as part of this wider negotiation.”
The government indirectly controls the thousands of miles of track, via Network Rail, on which privately-owned train companies operate.
Mr Clarke said it would not interfere in the negotiations between employers and employees, saying: “We don’t own the railways ourselves.”
Paul Nowak, deputy general secretary of the TUC, said the likes of teachers, rail workers and postal workers were not “taking strike action for the fun of it” but had “real concerns about things like pay”.
Rail workers have very little option but to strike, claims Labour leader.
He said “A lot of our members are just saying ‘enough is enough’.”
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh also revealed that it was still possible for Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, to make an eleventh hour intervention and stop the strikes from going ahead.
She said: “We want to see passengers avoid disruption but of course we understand and support rail workers rights to fight for a fair pay settlement.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union representing civil servants, said his union was balloting 150,000 members over action in September and teachers were also looking at possible strike ballots in the autumn.
He said “I’m not sure about a summer of discontent… but what I am sure about is that we will see high levels of industrial action unless the government recognise that front line public sector workers who kept the country running during the pandemic cannot be expected to have a 2% pay rise when inflation is forecast to be over 11%.”
A further flashpoint could come this week when the government moves forward with a plan to repeal a ban on agency workers being employed to step in for strikers – a move that is strongly resisted by unions.