The prospect of rail and air strikes affecting millions of passengers loomed large last night after unions warned of industrial action that would bring widespread disruption during the general election campaign.
Rail workers, including hundreds of signal operators, are expected to announce dates tomorrow for strikes likely to take place over Easter unless talks with the infrastructure operator, Network Rail, resolve a row over safety standards and staffing levels.
A walkout by signallers and maintenance workers, which Network Rail executives expect to begin on 1 April, would cripple the rail network at a time when an estimated 10 million people are planning to travel by train. Bob Crow, the leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), has already warned passengers against booking rail tickets for the Easter weekend.
The threat of the first national rail strike since 1996 is one element of what opposition politicians claim is fast becoming a "spring of discontent". British Gas workers yesterday voted to take industrial action over "macho management", and British Airways continues to grapple with the aftermath of last weekend's walkout by cabin crew.
Although the Unite union, which represents BA staff, has ruled out strikes over the Easter period, a second four-day stoppage is planned from this Saturday, and plans are already being made for further action in mid-April.
The disputes raise the possibility that the general election campaign will be fought during the most widespread industrial upheaval for years. The Conservatives are attempting to pin the blame for the unrest on links between Labour and the unions.
The Tory party chairman, Eric Pickles, said yesterday: "We need a strong government to stand up for the interests of this country, not one that's reliant on union barons propping them up."
Talks to avert a strike between Network Rail and two unions – the RMT and the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA) – took place yesterday in London at the conciliation service Acas amid revelations that the infrastructure company has been censured for a "seriously out-of-date" inspection regime for bridges. The Office of Rail Regulation confirmed it had served an improvement notice on Network Rail for breaches of health and safety regulations relating to bridges in Kent, Anglia and Wessex.
The unions are threatening action over changes to the rosters of around 50 signalling workers and plans to cut 1,500 maintenance jobs. Network Rail said it "strongly believed" a resolution to the dispute was achievable.
BA, which confirmed it had cancelled nearly one in five flights yesterday as it battled to restore its normal schedule, said last weekend's three-day stoppage had cost it £7m a day as both sides tried to claim an advantage in the increasingly intractable dispute. No further talks between BA and Unite are planned before the next walkout, planned for 27 to 30 March.Reuse content