The first strike, over threatened job losses, is likely to take place within the next two weeks, and further disruption could be timed to coincide with a planned one-day stoppage by miners on 2 April.
Early ballot returns indicate that in a 70 per cent turnout 68,000 members of the RMT, the main rail union, have voted by a decisive margin for industrial action over the threat of compulsory job losses. The full result of the ballot is due on Monday.
The vote by railway workers is further evidence of a growing mood of industrial militancy in the face of cutbacks, closures, job losses and pay restraint in the public sector.
The developments come as workers elsewhere threaten industrial action. Leaders of the Fire Brigades Union said this week that they are preparing for a strike ballot over the Government's decision to ignore the automatic pay mechanism which has kept the peace in the service for more than a decade. The FBU believes strikes are 'inevitable'.
Ministers are also faced with industrial action by the local government union Nalgo in protest at the 1.5 per cent public sector pay limit. Town hall staff walked out on Thursday at South Tyneside, Walsall in the West Midlands and Hackney, east London. Nalgo leaders are threatening more disruption elsewhere.
There are indications that a new public sector pay ceiling could be imposed in the autumn, virtually ensuring a prolonged period of conflict.
Rail passengers last suffered serious disruption in 1989 with a series of day- long strikes over pay, some of which coincided with stoppages on London Underground.
Public sympathy then seemed to lie more with the strikers than with management and it is possible, as privatisation looms, that British Rail could now face the same problem.
This time rail workers are taking action because BR is in the process of shedding thousands of jobs. By the end of this month 7,000 jobs will have gone in the past six months. The Independent reported last week that the corporation intends to shed a further 4,000 jobs by the end of September. RMT fears a further 16,000 could soon follow in the run-up to privatisation, which is due to start mid-way through next year. BR has refused to give any assurances that there will be no compulsory redundancies and has relied on high unemployment in the private sector to dampen militancy.
Thousands of rail jobs will be lost if pit closures go ahead, RMT leaders argue. Coal is BR freight division's biggest customer, carrying 75 million tons a year, the major slice of the 120 million ton national output. Powergen, the smaller of the two main power generators, has threatened to cancel its coal haulage contract with BR.
RMT's initial plan is for one 24-hour stoppage, but if BR decided to make no response, the action could be turned into a rolling programme of one-day strikes, Jimmy Knapp, the RMT general secretary, has warned .
Other reasons for rail workers' anger are BR's refusal to stop using contractors while redundant BR staff are available and a 'watering down' of the redundancy payment scheme.
BR argues that business has declined significantly. Forecasts for revenue to the end of the 1993/94 financial year show a deterioration of pounds 400m on predictions madelast spring.
The corporation points out that the number of employees had declined until the start of the 1989/90 financial year, but has risen steadily since. Pay bill costs had risen to a greater extent than productivity, BR contends.
In the private sector, white-collar staff at Ford have threatened industrial action for the first time since the company established plants in Britain before the First World War.Reuse content