Railtrack offers pounds 770 to strike breakers

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The Independent Online
IN A high-risk attempt to break the rail strikes, managers are preparing to offer some signal workers more than pounds 700 a head to cross picket lines this week.

Railtrack says that up to half the signal workers in its south-west region have indicated their readiness to accept the deal - a claim vigorously denied by national union officials. The pounds 770 is the equivalent of the first part of an offer rejected by the union backdated to 4 April.

The development, however, could lead to confrontations between strikers and 'returnees' from noon this Wednesday when the RMT union mounts its eighth strike over pay.

Management claimed yesterday the initiative came from local representatives of signalling staff who met Jim Morgan, the south-west zone director, last Friday.

A spokeswoman for the region said the employees declared their frustration with the two-month campaign of industrial action and expressed their readiness to accept money to return to work. Those accepting the cash would be expected to work on all future strike days.

The informal offer, which the union says is similar to a plan in the Anglia region, yesterday further soured the relationship between the sides. It could make movement towards a national agreement far more difficult, although management emphasises its local nature and clearly believes it could force the union to accept Railtrack's terms.

After three days of shuttle diplomacy ending on Friday, the conciliation service Acas is today due to make a fresh attempt at finding a compromise. Both sides were advised to 'reflect' on their positions over the weekend.

An Acas spokesman said yesterday there were no grounds so far for starting formal negotiations, but further attempts would be made. All those close to the informal conciliation process have virtually abandoned any hope of avoiding this Wednesday's action, during which British Rail hopes to provide more than one in three services.

Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT, said of the news from the South-west that if there was any 'spare money' it should be taken to the negotiating table. Signal staff will have lost approximately pounds 700 by the time currently planned disruption comes to an end. A 48-hour stoppage is scheduled for next week, the second two-day strike.

Mr Knapp said: 'I can no longer be astonished by the antics of Railtrack in this dispute, but this must take the prize for stupidity. Railtrack is offering individuals up to pounds 800 to try and break the strike when putting the money on the table could go a long way to resolving it.

'It calls into question Railtrack's sincerity about seeking further negotiations. Yet again they have been caught out saying one thing in public and doing something entirely different in private.' He called on management to get back to joint talks which could start by discussing how the pounds 800 could be distributed.

The union said that managers had been paid overtime to go out to signal boxes in the South-west to sell the deal to personnel. While Railtrack was confident that about half the 260 strikers in the area would accept the payment, the union said its members would not be 'bought off'.

Management sources said that the offer would have to be endorsed by company headquarters before it was made to signal staff. Railtrack said the payment for defying the strikes would represent a 2.5 per cent annual increase, which is on offer throughout the rail industry, an unconsolidated 6 per cent for agreeing in principle to a restructuring exercise and pounds 250 for giving up the right to be paid in cash.

Leaders of the RMT yesterday expressed confidence that supervisors, who have helped to provide services on strike days, would join their subordinates in industrial action. Internal union reports from the West Country, the North-east and Scotland suggest a majority of the 500 RMT supervisors are in favour of strikes. The ballot result is due on Thursday.