The first sign that the RMT might be interested in new proposals by management emerged when union leaders called for the offer to be put in writing.
The news emerged as travellers endured the eighth stoppage by signal staff and it came on the eve of the result of a strike ballot among 500 supervisors who have been helping management to provide a service during stoppages. RMT leaders last night expressed their confidence in a 'yes' vote.
Sir Bob said the industrial action scheduled for Friday 12 August and the following Monday and Tuesday would be 'hugely destructive'.
In a letter to RMT, he said there was 'a new atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination in the public statements from both sides' and that it would be 'devastating if this was to degenerate into outright confrontation'.
Sir Bob said the continuing disruption was 'causing intolerable inconvenience to all who use the railway'.
He went on: 'We cannot expect to keep passengers or freight customers if we treat them like this. The disruption has seriously damaged our business and the only winners in that are our competitors - particularly on the roads.'
Sir Bob also wrote to Bob Horton, Railtrack chairman, telling him of 'my serious concern at yesterday's breakdown in your negotiations with the RMT'.
Later, speaking on BBC radio, Sir Bob said escalating industrial action would threaten 'everybody's future' on the railways. He indicated that the confrontation could lead to redundancies.
Referring to management's proposals, Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT, said that management might have been giving 'nods and winks' to the conciliation service Acas on Monday, but no substantive offer had reached the union.
One RMT source contended that the detail of the offer was not put to the union and that negotiating with Railtrack was 'like wrestling with smoke'.
Management confirmed yesterday that it was prepared to 'consolidate' half of its intial offer of 6 per cent. That means that 3 per cent will feed through into overtime rates and pension entitlements, and the total increase will be worth about 4.7 per cent. Railtrack also said it was prepared to negotiate on the pounds 250 lump sum it had offered to the union in return for its members giving up the right to be paid in cash.
Last night senior union officials said that a 'straight' increase of 4.5 per cent on basic would take them back to the negotiating table.
Together with an increase of 2.5 per cent available to all workers in the industry, the productivity package tabled by Railtrack would give signal workers an average increase of nearly 8 per cent this year. For that they would have to agree to radical changes in working practices.
There were indications yesterday that public sympathy for the strikers might be ebbing away. Major General Lennox Napier, chairman of the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee, urged a two-week suspension of strikes and warned that the union was in danger of losing passengers' goodwill. He said the RMT had gone 'over the top' in escalating action. The action planned for the end of next week would disrupt services from the night of Thursday 11 August to the following Wednesday morning.
A survey by BBC's Greater London Radio, claimed to be one of the biggest tests of public opinion since the strikes began, showed that commuters were divided about the merits of the strikers' case. A clear majority said, however, they would turn against them if the stoppages continued for another week.
Meanwhile, Railtrack outlined in a bulletin to signal workers the reshaped package it claimed RMT had rejected during abortive attempts by the conciliation service, Acas, on Monday to bring the sides together.
In the leaflet, Railtrack said the proposed strikes constituted 'vicious action' which would 'hit the industry and and the public harder than ever'.
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