UK rail workers vote in favour of nationwide strike

Britain faces a summer of travel chaos after railway workers voted for nationwide strike action in a dispute over jobs and pay.

The RMT union said on Tuesday evening that the vote was “the biggest endorsement of industrial action since privatisation”, after balloting more than 40,000 members at the infrastructure operator Network Rail and at 15 train-operating companies.

With a turnout of 71 per cent, 89 per cent voted for strike action, with a majority in favour at Network Rail and 13 train operators. At GTR, which includes Gatwick Express, workers voted for action short of a strike.

Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, said the vote was a “vindication” of the union’s approach and that its executive council would now meet to discuss a timetable for strike action from mid-June, while pursuing talks with Network Rail and the operating companies to find a negotiated settlement.

The dispute centres on plans by Network Rail to cut at least 2,500 “safety-critical” maintenance jobs, according to the RMT, which says staff at train-operating companies have faced pay freezes, threats to jobs and a degradation of their terms and conditions.

It comes against a backdrop of growing industrial unrest, as soaring inflation erodes workers’ pay and hits household living standards.

The PCS civil service union, which has been enraged by plans to cull a fifth of staff in government departments, said on Wednesday that it would hold a national ballot on industrial action in the autumn over pay, pensions and redundancy terms.

Network Rail denies having any fixed target for job cuts and says it has not yet tabled any formal proposals for cost-cutting, although it has “informally discussed some ideas” for significant savings to help the industry adapt to a post-pandemic decline in commuting and business travel.

“The RMT has jumped the gun,” said Andrew Haines, Network Rail’s chief executive, noting that the company was still engaged in pay talks with unions. “Travel habits have changed forever and the railway has to change as well . . . Any industrial action now would be disastrous.”

Network Rail claims that strike action would cost the industry about £30mn each day if it goes ahead. If it was staged for 24-hour periods, the disruption to freight services would be minimal, the company said, but if signallers stopped work for longer than a 72-hour period there would be significant disruption and a need to put special operations in place.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, has threatened to tighten laws on industrial action in order to lessen any disruption, making it illegal for railway workers to strike if a minimum service could not be met, but any such measures would be fiercely opposed by unions and the industry is doubtful that rapid legislation would be feasible.

The Rail Delivery Group, which represents passenger and freight rail companies, said it had made contingency plans to lessen any disruption, but urged the RMT to continue talks to find a way to avoid strike action.

Steve Montgomery, RDG chair, said the industry had to “change our ways of working and improve productivity to help pay our own way”, adding that it was unfair to ask taxpayers or passengers to pay more “when they too are feeling the pinch”.

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