Minister attacks rail unions over strikes

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John Spellar, the Transport minister, risked more clashes with the unions yesterday by branding the rail strike action as a "totally unsatisfactory" way of pursuing grievances.

The minister told railway unions, whose militant leadership is threatening a spate of industrial action, that they must start negotiation or arbitration with employers.

"It is, quite frankly, totally unsatisfactory in this day and age for strikes to be a matter of first resort," Mr Spellar said. "We have indicated very strongly in these disputes that negotiation or arbitration should be the method for achieving this, particularly in a vital public service."

His remarks came after last week's 24-hour strike which brought all trains of the First North Western services to a standstill. About 800 members of the rail unions RMT and Aslef walked out over the dismissal of a driver accused of passing two consecutive red lights. Commuters in Manchester, Bolton and Liverpool were affected by the action.

The strike was the latest in a series of actions. Disruption of the Arriva Trains Northern services in the past week led to cancelled trains in Newcastle and in many parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire. And one-day strikes by Aslef members working on the Tyne and Wear Metro is threatening to scupper the opening in May of a £100m line extension.

Silverlink services between London and Birmingham could also continue to be hit bystrike action, and London Underground, where the RMT has dismissed a 2 per cent pay offer as an "insult", may see disruption.

Industrial unrest gathered momentum with the appointment of Bob Crow, a hard-left RMT leader. His election came as Tony Blair went head-to-head with the unions opposing plans to use private firms to improve transport, hospitals and schools.

Mr Spellar's intervention is likely to fuel anger in the rail unions, which have threatened to cease financial support for a number of Labour MPs, including the Deputy Prime Minister, if the Government fails to support them.