Rail strikes on next week

Strikes expected to paralyse rail system
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The Independent Online
Train drivers' leaders yesterday named the dates for six 24-hour pay strikes which are expected to cause far worse disruption than last year's signal workers' dispute.

After a 60 per cent vote in favour of strikes, the drivers' union, Aslef, called stoppages on Tuesday next week, Tuesday 18 July, Thursday 27 July, Tuesday 8 August, Friday 25 August and Tuesday 12 September. The union expects that its members at London Underground will join the last three strikes, bringing the London rail system to a standstill.

Last year, rail managers did the work of many striking signal staff, but few can drive trains.

Lew Adams, Aslef general secretary, said all six dates were named at once yesterday because the union "means business" in resisting a "final" 3 per cent pay offer.

Ministers are facing the biggest challenge to their pay policy for public servants since a freeze on wage bills was introduced more than two years years ago.

Talks broke down yesterday between senior NHS managers and negotiators representing 600,000 staff. Health unions are to set in train ballots on disruption in protest at local pay deals, with action possible in the autumn.

London Tube drivers are expected to vote for industrial action over a proposed 2.75 per cent increase in wages, with the result of their ballot due on 27 July.

The main rail union, RMT, is expected on Friday to announce a "yes" vote for 24-hour stoppages at both British Rail and London Underground. All the action is expected to be co-ordinated and to paralyse the system.

Aslef achieved an extremely high turnout for a union postal ballot: 72.8 per cent. The British Rail drivers voted by 5,732 to 3,757 to take their first substantial industrial action since 1982.

Mr Adams said it was the fifth time his members, who earn an average of pounds 21,500 a year, had been asked to take a pay increase below the inflation rate.

It is thought that the drivers were angered by the signal workers' settlement last year, which has eroded the pay "differentials" enjoyed by the drivers, traditionally the highest-paid manual workers in the railway industry.

Mr Adams said the latest pay proposals were "insulting" and took no account of increases in productivity and British Rail's pounds 400m operating profit.

"Tiny adjustments will not be enough," he said.

Mr Adams acknowledged that the disruption could affect the timetable for railway privatisation, but said the dispute was about wages and the conflict was not of the union's making.

"We are not a gang of hotheads, or a militant union," he said.

He accused ministers of interfering in the bargaining process so that managers were unable to negotiate freely.

He indicated that there was little point in calling for fresh talks because management had insisted that 3 per cent was the "final" offer.

Mr Adams said he hoped the public would understand that train drivers were being forced to take action by government intransigence.

Paul Watkinson, head of personnel at BR, said he was "deeply disappointed" over Aslef's decision.

"It is as much as has been offered in the rest of the public sector and a good deal more than many people will get." He urged the train drivers and their leaders to think again.

Brain Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, said industrial action was not in the interest of passengers, the industry or railway workers.

"Great caution" should be exercised before the unions sought to repeat the disruption suffered by the industry last year, the minister said.

Drivers at some former British Rail companies, such as the cross-Channel passenger and freight operators, are still negotiating and are not expected to join the action in the near future. Rail Express Systems, which carries out Royal Mail contracts, is also unaffected so far.

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