Rail freight operator in 'no strike' dispute with union

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The Independent Online

Britain's biggest rail freight operator has threatened to withdraw recognition from the RMT union if it fails to sign a groundbreaking deal to introduce a "no strike" agreement.

Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT and regarded as the country's most militant union leader, signed a letter allegedly agreeing to give up his members' right to take industrial action at EWS .

But he has since withdrawn his approval of any deal, declaring he would never agree to such an accord. Under the framework all industrial disputes would be referred to arbitrators whose decision would be binding on both parties - in effect, a no-strike deal.

Other companies in the industry would dearly love to arrive at such an accommodation with Mr Crow, who has led a series of strikes on the network.

Mr Crow's fundamental disagreements with ministers over their refusal to allow more liberal strike laws has led to the RMT's expulsion from the Labour Party.

However, Mr Crow signed a letter allegedly ratifying the agreement. The terms of the proposed deal, seen by this newspaper, establish an "independent dispute resolution panel", the membership of which will be jointly agreed. The document says: "The panel will take submissions from both the employers' side and staff side. The panel's decision will be on the basis of pendulum arbitration and will be binding on both parties." The reference to "pendulum" arbitration means the panel will opt either for the RMT's claim or management's response.

It is a device which attempts to ensure both sides draw up moderate proposals to impress the arbitrators. One senior source in the union movement said: "It's not clear whether this is a deliberate breach of RMT policy or an example of shoddy workmanship by the union's officials. Either way it does a disservice to working people involved in the railways."

Keith Norman, the general secretary of the train drivers' union Aslef, which has about 2,500 members at EWS, said: "We do not sign no-strike agreements with anybody even though we regard industrial action as the last resort."

A spokesman for EWS said if the union were to "renege" on the deal, the company would be unable to negotiate with the union on pay and productivity.

An RMT spokesman said the company had unilaterally inserted the clause after a meeting in which a no-strike deal was not discussed. "It's all about union-busting," he said.