Rail shift fails to stop strike

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RAIL union leaders yesterday significantly softened their pay demands, but the move came too late to prevent the start of five days of disruption, with strikes by signal staff from tomorrow.

The RMT union made public its proposals for resolving the two- month-old dispute as Sir Bob Reid, chairman of British Rail, wrote to the union urging it to call off its action and warning of the 'dire consequences' for the railway


But Railtrack dismissed the latest move by the union while both sides prepared for the latest series of strikes, which will be a crucial trial of strength. Since a ballot of RMT supervisors voted against joining the strike last week Rail-

track has been in a bullish mood and is determined to get its way.

In his letter to the union, Sir Bob said: 'Loss of revenue is crippling the industry, threatening jobs and investment.' In a separate letter to Bob Horton, chairman of Railtrack, the BR chairman said: 'I must look to you to do everything possible on your side to reach a settlement which will allow us to resume the safe and reliable services which our customers expect.'

The new RMT proposals, which it put to Railtrack via the conciliation service Acas on Tuesday, show a major shift in the union's claim for the 4,600 signal workers. The union said the plans 'would allow settlement without conceding a politically sensitive headline figure'.

That referred to a 5.7 per cent offer from Railtrack which was withdrawn in June at the Government's insistence.

The RMT suggested a 4.6 per cent rise with one of various options attached. This could be a one- hour reduction in the working week, an index-linked annual payment, or an improvement in overtime and shift payments.

In return for a settlement on one of these options the RMT would begin 'intensive talks' on restructuring next Monday, with a firm commitment to simplifying grades. RMT's original claim was for an 11 per cent increase. Until now the union has always insisted that the

withdrawn 5.7 per cent offer was the bottom line for any deal.

Railtrack has offered a 6 per cent increase on basic rates, but because almost half signal workers' earnings come from overtime and allowances this is worth only 3 per cent. Last week Railtrack hinted that it might consolidate half the 6 per cent into overtime and allowances which would make it worth about 4.6 per cent, the starting point for the RMT's new proposals. However, the company refused to confirm that to the union.

There will be one 24-hour strike from midnight tonight and a 48- hour strike on Monday and Tuesday. This will inevitably affect services over the weekend, causing five days of disruption.

The RMT denied that the new proposals were a retreat and said they were a way of reaching a settlement without embarrassing Railtrack. Vernon Hince, the union's chief negotiator, said: 'I don't think that Railtrack are trying to settle the dispute. They are not serious about where they are in the dispute.'

But Railtrack said that any pay deal must be part of an overall agreement on restructuring grades and working practices, which it believes is essential for the future of the industry. Railtrack continued what it called 'informal contacts' with Acas yesterday but is still refusing to agree a pay deal in advance of a restructuring agreement.

A privatised Railtrack? page 18