Talks between Network Rail and the RMT have resumed with the union warning it will announce more strike dates if the rail bosses press ahead with a consultation on compulsory redundancies.
The two sides met for the first time since a national strike last week against the backdrop of Friday’s deadline for Network Rail to begin a consultation over redundancies, with or without the union’s co-operation.
Network Rail informed the RMT last Monday of its intention to consult on redundancies, under section 188 of the Employment Act, a move that prompted the union to walk away from talks that might have averted strike action.
The union says the Section 188 process, scheduled to begin on July 1, is incompatible with its demand for a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies. The RMT is also seeking a substantial pay-rise to keep pace with the cost of living and has tabled a request for 7%.
Rail sources accept that signalling a consultation on redundancies was “incendiary”, but say it was necessary to show that it is serious about reforming working practices, even if it means marginalising unions.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch told Sky News it was committed to finding a negotiated settlement on pay and conditions, but would not accept compulsory redundancies.
“Genuine modernisation of the railways is something we and our predecessor unions have negotiated for decades,” he said. “But we cannot allow modernisation to be used as a smokescreen for a form of fire and rehire – where our members are laid off and some are reemployed on inferior contracts while agency labour and contractors are brought in to fill the gaps.
“If Network Rail carry out their threat of starting consultation of compulsory redundancies, we will announce further strike dates. We will not allow the rail industry to become like the aviation industry or another P&O where bosses sack people at will and super exploit staff on a whim.”
Network Rail and ministers insist that reform of working practices including more than 1,500 redundancies are necessary to cut costs, following a collapse in passenger numbers and rail revenue prompted by the pandemic.
Having rejected an initial pay deal worth up to 3% linked to reforms, the RMT is understood to have prepared its own proposals on modernisation and cost cutting, including more than £200m of potential savings, secured in part by ending a reliance on sub-contractors.
Network Rail, which manages tracks and major stations, says reforms will inevitably require redundancies, but believes 95% of these can be achieved through a voluntary process.
If the employer decides to press ahead with the redundancy consultation process on Friday it would mark a significant escalation of the dispute at a highly sensitive time.
The RMT is due to hold its Annual General Meeting next week, a five-day gathering in Birmingham, during which the executive committee and officials currently running negotiations are stood down.
During that period the AGM is effectively in control of the union, with decision making in the hands of a much larger, and potentially more militant group that may press for further strike action.
Given the circumstances it would be brave, or perhaps foolhardy, for the employer to inflame the dispute ahead of the RMT AGM, meaning an extension of talks, and a delay to the consultation process, is more likely.
Network Rail says tackling restrictive working practices is central to making the railways viable post-pandemic.
They cite the example of having to send three teams of single-discipline experts to a fault, two of whom are usually not required, rather than one multi-disciplinary team. This can mean nine people attend a signal failure when three might suffice.
The RMT say multidisciplinary teams already operate to attend to points failures, and dispute claims that teams will not share vehicles, They say multiple vehicles are required for many jobs because of the amount of equipment required.
Having brought the vast majority of workers out on strike three times last week however they are said to be relaxed about the negotiations and ready to “dig in” for the long haul if required.
If further strike action is scheduled it may come later in July, perhaps timed to coincide with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. The TSSA union is balloting its members over strike action, with the vote closing on July 11 and a walkout possible from July 25.
Ultimately ministers will play a role in settling the dispute, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps setting Network Rail’s mandate for talks and the Treasury taking a close interest.
Mr Shapps and Treasury ministers have been in regular talks with railway leadership during the dispute, insisting on savings to close the £2bn funding gap following the pandemic.
They are also keen to set a precedent of tough negotiation ahead of the wider public sector pay debate, which will see teachers, doctors and nurses, firefighters and other key workers seeking increases closer to inflation, currently running at 9.1%.