British ministers ‘losing argument’ over rail strikes, says Mick Lynch

Mick Lynch acknowledged that public support for rail unions had been eroded by weeks of strikes, but said the government was still “losing the argument” in a long-running wage dispute.

The secretary-general of the Railway, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT) said Rishi Sunak’s moves to tighten anti-strike laws show that the government hopes to dispel opposition to austerity.

Lynch commented on the picket line at Euston station in central London at the start of another 48-hour RMT strike on Friday, the final stage of nearly four weeks of varying levels of industrial action and disruption to the rail network.

Only around 20% of trains were running on Friday due to the strike – an improvement for most passengers in England, following the Aslef union drivers’ strike on Thursday stopped virtually all trains at the affected operators.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said on Friday afternoon that rail operators had sent a written offer of an 8% pay increase over two years to Aslef train drivers – a 4% increase backdated to 2022 and a further 4% from January 2023. The proposal would, however, oblige drivers to work on Sundays, e.g. change work practices.

Steve Montgomery, chairman of the Rail Delivery Group, said it was “a fair and affordable deal in difficult times, delivering a significant increase in train drivers’ pay while introducing common sense and long overdue reforms”. The RDG said the average train driver’s salary would rise to almost £65,000.

Aslef said he has yet to receive an offer. Earlier this week, the union’s general secretary, Mick Whelan, told the Guardian that an offer requiring sweeping workplace reform that did not match inflation would be rejected by members.

Friday’s RMT strike, which involved thousands of signallers on Network Rail as well as train crew, destroyed most services in Wales, Scotland and rural England, with no early morning or evening trains across the UK and only a limited timetable on major intercity and suburban lines.

The strike will continue on Saturday with a similar level of trains available to passengers who have been warned to travel by rail only when needed. Most trains should run late Sunday morning, although some operators warn that it will take all weekend to restore normal services.

Meanwhile, RMT’s Mick Lynch told PA Media news agency: “We’ve done a little damage to public opinion.” However, he said the polled support was a “very good record” given the strikes, adding: “We expect it to come back when people get through the final phase. Our numbers are record high for a protest action campaign. As with nurses, teachers, clerks and everyone else.

The railroad was “in desperate trouble,” Lynch said, “The companies that run it and the government that oversees it have shown themselves to be incompetent and incapable of understanding the railroad.

“When we are not on strike, passengers are told that trains are not running due to staff shortages. At the same time, at the negotiating table, they tell me they want to lay off thousands.”

Legislation to block strikes showed the government was losing the argument, Lynch said. He told the BBC: “In a democratic society it’s really important that we have free trade unions representing working people. The symbol of this is that the government loses the argument.

“They lost the argument over austerity and wages and the state of our national public services. Instead, they want to end the argument by shutting down the unions and stopping us from campaigning against poverty.”

In Friday interviews, Sunak did not rule out dismissals for the strike.

The prime minister said he believed in the freedom to strike, but added: “I also believe this should be balanced with the right of ordinary working people to live free from significant disruption.”

Labor said the Conservatives, including Transport Secretary Mark Harper, had made it clear that a minimum service level policy on rail was not the solution, while an internal Department for Transport impact assessment suggested it would increase the number of strikes .

The party also took note of recent comments from the chief executive of the Railway Safety and Standards Council, Mark Phillips, who said such legislation “would not have the slightest impact” on the number of trains the industry can run.

Union leaders will meet with ministers on Monday. Further rail strikes are not planned.

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