Secret talks on pay deal to break railway strike

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The Independent Online
SECRET discussions are taking place between Railtrack and the Department of Transport over a new pay deal to break the signal workers' strike.

Railtrack officials are seeking clarification of how much more they can pay signal staff to induce them to sign individual contracts without breaching the Government's strict public sector pay policy.

Informal soundings among the 4,700 strikers, who ended a 48-hour stoppage at midnight, have made it clear that Railtrack's existing offer would not be accepted by enough workers for an appeal over the head of the union to succeed.

A further 48-hour strike was called yesterday by leaders of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers to begin immediately after August Bank Holiday Monday, adding to the pressure on Railtrack to end the 10-week long dispute.

Issuing personal contracts is believed to be the only active option being considered by Railtrack if the rail union RMT does not agree to open negotiations on restructuring rather than insisting on an up-front payment for past productivity.

David Armstrong, head of human resources, said yesterday that any offer on personal contracts was a high risk tactic in a dispute where signal staff have a considerable degree of public support. 'Once you have gone down that road there is no turning back,' he said. 'The best way to achieve a settlement is by five days of serious negotiations.'

Railtrack yesterday claimed the first breakthough in its efforts to get signal workers to break the strike, with a quarter of staff in East Anglia reporting for duty. But fewer than 300 of the RMT's members are ignoring the strike call and BR was able to run only about a third of its 15,000 services yesterday, the same as in previous stoppages.

It is believed that Railtrack would have to make significant improvements in the pounds 4.3m it has set aside to finance its restructuring package, but a substantial increase is almost certain to bring the payments into conflict with public sector pay targets. Workers are being offered rises on basic rates of between 13 and 26 per cent but would lose overtime and other payments.

About 1,000 signal workers could be a pounds 100 a month worse off under Railtrack's current proposals. Extra payments to ensure staff do not lose out and accept Railtrack's demands for compulsory Sunday working and 12-hour shifts are believed to be at the centre of new proposals.

The Department of Transport said that Railtrack continually kept ministers and officials informed of the progress of the dispute and the company's attempts to resolve it. But the department would not confirm that discussions had taken place on the precise boundaries of the public sector pay policy which allows pay rises financed through productivity increases.

The strength of public support for the signal workers was underlined by unpublished poll evidence that people directly inconvenienced by the strikes support the action by a margin of nearly two to one, writes Michael McCarthy. A fifth of those polled, by Mori for the Mail on Sunday, described themselves as inconvenienced by the action. Of this group, 62 per cent thought the strike action was right, with 32 per cent disagreeing. When asked which side they back, 62 per cent of the same group said they backed the RMT, with only 17 per cent supporting Railtrack.

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