BR threatens union's financial 'lifeline': Rail chairman takes tougher stand after talks aimed at averting second 24-hour stoppage

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The Independent Online
THE CHAIRMAN of British Rail threatened yesterday to cut off a critical financial lifeline to the biggest rail union if it goes ahead with its second 24-hour strike on Friday.

Sir Bob Reid indicated that the management would abolish the 'check-off' system, in which union subscriptions are deducted from wages at source. BR collects about pounds 500,000 a month on behalf of the National Union of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers (RMT). It is the most important source of income for the organisation and its removal would cause considerable problems.

Sir Bob's threat marks a far tougher approach to the dispute by managers, who have declared increasing frustration with what they regard as union intransigence. He said there were a number of areas where management co-operated with unions which might have to be re-examined.

Last night, both sides emerged from talks saying that some progress had been made in negotiations and there would be a further meeting today. The union is mounting a series of day-long stoppages in an attempt to force management to guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies. Jimmy Knapp, RMT general secretary, is also seeking to restrict the introduction of contractors into areas of work normally carried out by his union's members.

Management is also due to meet leaders of the 16,000-strong train drivers' union Aslef today. Sir Bob said that management was not willing to accede to what he thought was a demand for 'jobs for life'. He said progress had been made in talks yesterday, but 'the only real progress we're interested in is if the railway runs normally on Friday'.

The talks at BR's headquarters in London involved 'a very frank exchange of views', Sir Bob said, and he pointed out that the process of contracting out services would not involve compulsory redundancies. He said the rolling campaign of 24-hour stoppages planned by RMT bore no advantage for British Rail, customers or employees.

Negotiations over freight contracts were at a sensitive stage and interruptions to the service were potentially damaging to business. 'Once we start losing freight, you're looking at the loss of a lot of jobs. We are asking the unions to take the opportunities provided by an expanding railway industry, but one which is in a process of change,' he said.

The National Union of Mineworkers is also preparing to take industrial action on Friday, but London bus drivers, in dispute over a cut in wages, have postponed their planned disruption.

John Prescott, Labour's spokesman on transport, intervened in the rail dispute last night and urged John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, to call all the sides to talks to avert Friday's threatened strike.

Mr Prescott said he was convinced there was room for a settlement, if the Government took part. He said the dispute centred on the interpretation of the redundancies threatened by BR. 'British Rail have up to 7,000 redundancies a year for the past decade without making it compulsory. All the unions are demanding is that policy should be continued, and that they should not be compulsory.

'Some reassurances are needed and that can only come from the Government by calling all the parties to talks,' he said.