Tories will 'fight to the end' over rail strike

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The Independent Online
RAILWAY services will be drastically curtailed from midnight tonight as signal workers begin a 48-hour strike amidsigns that the Government is preparing for a fight to the finish with their union, the RMT.

Railtrack, the employer, plansto offer substantial pay rises individually to the 4,500 signal staff if they agree to reformed working practices. The aim is to persuade a majority to vote 'yes', virtually compelling the RMT general secretary, Jimmy Knapp, to sign a deal.

Bob Horton, chairman of Railtrack, discussed the strategy at a two-hour secret meeting last Thursday with Dr Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, shortly before the minister left London for a two-week holiday. Bryan Wilson MP, a Labour spokesman on the railways, said: 'Mawhinney's decision to go on holiday is another indication of the Government's attitude of hoping to win political advantage out of this dispute.'

Dr Mawhinney also approved a pounds 100,000 advertising campaign in Sunday newspapers today appealing to the RMT to 'put an end to this madness'. Labour called it 'party political advertising'.

Both Railtrack and ministers are closely monitoring the turnout in the strike, looking for some break in the signal workers' ranks as the dispute nears the end of its ninth week. Managers say that 250 RMT members have abandoned the industrial action, but the union says the figure is nearer 100; 400 hitherto non-union signalmen are also said to have joined the RMT.

Whoever is right, it is clear that Railtrack is seeking to emulate the strategy of British Rail in 1991, when management went over the heads of the rail union and persuaded signal and telecommunications engineers to accept a wage restructuring agreement. Union leaders were then forced to accept the fait accompli. There are also echoes of the year-long miners' strike in Railtrack's tactics: a combination of financial inducements and the isolation of the union leadership to make the strike collapse from within.

In their advertisement today, placed chiefly in newspapers broadly sympathetic to the Government and under the headline 'The pain goes on', Railtrack apologises for the 'callous' disruption of families' travel plans over the weekend. The advert says, 'We have had weeks of 'talks about talks',' insisting that 'Railtrack's offer is fair'. It tells the RMT: 'Let's put an end to this madness.'

Railtrack sources were last night privately unconvinced that this latest appeal would trigger any substantial union defections.

Labour's transport spokesman, Frank Dobson, said: 'If the Government are confident of their case, they should be prepared to set up an independent inquiry into the dispute, instead of inflicting all this misery on people all over the country.'