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TRANSPORT Secretary Grant Shapps was accused today of blocking negotiations that could have averted Wednesday’s strike by railway workers.
The TUC said that it had received expert legal opinion that Mr Shapps has the power to resolve the dispute, but is instead choosing to prolong the bitter dispute over jobs, pay and conditions.
In the run-up to the latest strike, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer again ordered members of his front-bench team not to join union picket lines.
RMT members employed by Network Rail and 14 train operators and TSSA members at Avanti West Coast are taking part in the one-day stoppage, during which only about one in five trains is expected to run on around half the network, with some areas having no trains all day.
About 80 per cent of train services were cancelled during strikes by RMT members last month.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Network Rail have not made any improvement on their previous pay offer and the train companies have not offered us anything new.
“In fact, Network Rail have upped the ante, threatening to impose compulsory redundancies and unsafe 50 per cent cuts to maintenance work if we did not withdraw our planned strike action.
“The train-operating companies have put driver-only operations on the table, along with ransacking our members’ terms and conditions.
“RMT will continue to negotiate in good faith, but we will not be bullied or cajoled by anyone.
“The government need to stop their interference in this dispute so the rail employers can come to a negotiated settlement with us.”
TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said of Wednesday’s strike: “Our members in Avanti West Coast are facing a fourth year of a real-terms pay cut while bills for essentials are spiralling.
“Grant Shapps and the Department for Transport need to make a reasonable offer on pay and job security, either by coming to the table themselves or allowing employers to negotiate freely. The string-pulling and blocking negotiations must stop.
“We’re seeing unrest across our railways as thousands of workers experience real-terms pay cuts as inflation skyrockets. This dispute is not going away. We will stand up with our members until we win the pay, conditions and job security they rightly deserve.”
Seeking to justify the ban on his shadow team attending picket lines, Sir Keir said: “It’s quite open to people to express their support for working people who are struggling to pay their bills, but I’m very clear that the Labour Party in opposition needs to be the Labour Party in power.
“And a government doesn’t go on picket lines, a government tries to resolve disputes.”
Michael Ford QC, of Old Square Chambers, told the TUC that Mr Shapps has “very extensive powers” over what can be agreed between rail operators and unions and “very significant contractual power” to direct how industrial disputes are handled.
He added that rail operators are not free to agree terms and conditions with their employees without the involvement of Mr Shapps.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We all want to see successful negotiations to end this dispute.
“But the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is giving secret instructions to rail firms from behind the scenes — and stopping them coming to a deal.
“It’s time for the Transport Secretary to stop blocking an agreement that will end the dispute.”
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said strikes by Welsh railway staff had been avoided by the Labour-run government in Cardiff working with employers and unions “to manage change and avoid the disruptive action that this government is about to oversee.”
She condemned Mr Shapps for “washing his hands of any responsibility,” rather than intervening to avert the strikes.
Cat Hobbs, director of campaign group We Own It, said: “Grant Shapps should be improving services to encourage rail travel, not making them worse.
“The RMT are not only fighting a cost-of-living squeeze but for the very future of our railway system.”
The Department for Transport said: “The rail industry has to modernise and be brought into the 21st century for the benefit of passengers and staff.”
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