Rail strike may be cracking: RMT rank-and-file edge towards arbitration

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THE FIRST signs of a breakthrough in the 14-week-old rail dispute emerged yesterday as the RMT union began to soften its position.

A meeting of more than 100 rank-and-file leaders of Railtrack signallers in Great Yarmouth yesterday moved towards acceptance of binding arbitration. Their deliberations raised the stakes on the eve of critical union executive talks that could call more strikes.

In Glasgow, Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT, talked privately of another formula - 'parallel negotiations' rather than arbitration - to resolve the conflict.

Under this formula the union would negotiate simultaneously but separately with Railtrack on the two main issues in the dispute: the union's claim for interim productivity payments and the employer's proposal for pay restructuring. But at a rally in Glasgow, Mr Knapp rejected calls for a new ballot.

Delegates entering the RMT union signal workers conference said a call for arbitration would put pressure on the Government and Railtrack to break the deadlock.

One signaller from the Midlands said: 'The solidarity is still there, but how long do you go on? It is bringing the industry to its knees. We are not militant people. We are not table bashers, we don't want the industry to collapse - and that's the way it is heading.'

A signalman from the North-East said: 'We want to go back to work, but not at any price. I have got four children and I am still out. It is becoming a matter of principle now.' Another signalman from the East Midlands added: 'We have got to start talking. This is getting us nowhere.'

The signal staff conference, meeting in private, was the first substantial rank-and-file test of opinion - in effect, a mini-referendum of the activists - since the dispute began in mid- June. Their readiness to opt for arbitration will be seen as a fundamental shift. Last week, Mr Knapp rejected binding third- party adjudication as premature.

The union has been demanding 11 per cent interim pay rises for past productivity, but was on the verge of accepting a 5.7 per cent offer tabled by Railtrack more than three months ago before it was subsequently withdrawn on the instructions of the Government.

Only a small minority of delegrates at the Great Yarmouth conference favoured a move to an all-out strike; many more favoured arbitration or showed interest in Mr Knapp's proposal for 'parallel negotiations'. One delegate said: 'We have to do something because the men are getting totally frustrated. If Railtrack say no to arbitration it will restore the resolve of those who are wavering.'

Arbitration is likely to be rejected by Railtrack and Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport. But both the employer and ministers will see it as a sign that the union's hard line is beginning to crumble and that the RMT might yet be brought to negotiations on Railtrack's terms: a pay restructuring without payment for past productivity.

A Midlands signal worker - forbidden by his contract of employment, like all signallers, to speak to the press - said: 'If they do not go to arbitration, there will be a national outcry. The public will know what is really going on.'

In another development yesterday, Labour's deputy leader, John Prescott, accused the Government of double standards after the revelation that employees at the Bank of England were awarded a pay deal similar to that refused to the signal workers.

The Bank's staff were given rises ranging between one and five per cent, funded from a reduction of the total pay bill from redundancies. If Railtrack applied the same criterion, that would free an additional pounds 2.7m, equivalent to a 3.3 per cent across-the-board pay improvement, Labour believes.

The Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has written to his opposite number, Kenneth Clarke, asking whether the Bank deal was within the Government's public sector pay policy and why the same sort of deal has not been granted to the RMT.

Yesterday Mr Prescott said: 'This does appear to confirm my fears that this is a politically- engineered strike deliberately kept going to seek political advantage at the Tory party conference. All too often there are double standards; why is this all right for the Bank of England but not for the signalmen?'