The head of the UK’s largest transport union said it would not “disarm” itself by agreeing to preconditions for wage talks, at the start of 48 hours of strikes that are set to cause widespread disruption to train services across Britain on a busy sports weekend.
RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch he told the BBC It would be “totally irresponsible” for the union – whose members walked out on Friday – to sign the terms set out by the train operators represented by the Rail Delivery Group.
The ongoing wage dispute between RMT and employers, which began in June last year, comes as workers across the public and private sectors push for bigger increases amid a cost-of-living crisis.
The two-day strike will affect most train operators in England, as the exit of RMT guards and station staff on Friday nearly halved the number of services. Fewer services were still scheduled to run on Saturday due to the interruption of train drivers’ union Aslef, which is locked in a separate wage dispute with 14 train operators.
Saturday’s strike will be particularly harsh for people trying to get to two of England’s biggest annual sporting events – the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium in London and the derby race meeting at Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey.
The cup final match is taking place between Manchester United and Manchester City, whose fans have been making great use of the Avanti West Coast service.
Aslef and RMT say their pay offers for fiscal years 2022-23 and 2023-24 amount to real discounts. Train operators have proposed 4 per cent pay increases for both years for predecessor members, while RMT workers have been offered 5 per cent increases for last year and 4 per cent this year.
The offer to RMT, which in March settled a long-running wage dispute with infrastructure owner Network Rail, includes a guaranteed minimum cash sum that would give the lowest paid employees a raise of up to 13 per cent over the two years.
Lynch said Friday that as part of a settlement, RDG had ordered the union to declare a resolution of the dispute before entering three months of talks on reforms, including closing underutilized ticket offices.
They demanded that we do this without any mandate [for further strikes] And without any leverage at the negotiating table,” he told the BBC. They wanted us to disarm ourselves at the negotiating table and we simply couldn’t do that. That would be completely irresponsible.”
In a separate letter to MPs, Lynch claimed the dispute had already cost the economy nearly £5 billion. The figure was based mainly on a claim by lobby group Hospitality UK that its members lost £3.25 billion in revenue from the strike.
The RDG said it disputed Lynch’s characterization of the preconditions and that RMT negotiators had a record of agreeing to the terms, only to be sidestepped by members of the union’s executive.
It called on the union’s leadership to “engage seriously in the financial challenges facing the industry…and return to the negotiating table so that we can resolve this disagreement.”
In a bid to make up for the disruption, the Football Association arranged for 120 coaches, 60 of whom are supporters of each club, to bring fans from Manchester to London on Saturday. Additional parking has also been arranged at Wembley.
Meanwhile, Epsom Downs Racecourse has made extra car parking available for the tens of thousands of people expected to attend, warning that nearby railway stations are not opening.
The unions have struck separate wage deals with Transport for London, Transport for Wales, Merseytravel and ScotRail, meaning their services will not be affected. Three “open access” commercial operations – Hull Trains, Grand Central and Lumo – are also exempt.
The Transportation Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.