Militants urge more rail strikes: Union conference set to hear call for new stoppages as moderates fear defeat looms

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The Independent Online
SIGNAL workers' leaders are coming under pressure to extend industrial action to two 24-hour stoppages a week.

As the rail system recovered yesterday from Wednesday's strike, officials of the RMT transport union predicted that militants may use next week's annual conference to call for an intensification of disruption.

However, Jimmy Knapp, leader of the RMT, has already called two further stoppages, next Wednesday and a week later, and may argue against more action.

Moderate elements in the union believe the signal workers are heading for defeat now that it has become clear they are taking on the Government. Ministers have said that any compromise with RMT's claim for a pay increase to compensate for past productivity improvements would undermine their policy toward 5 million workers in the public sector.

The moderates also point out that the Government may be content to see the dispute drag on because Tory politicians believe it will reflect badly on the Labour Party. Frank Dobson, Labour's transport spokesman, is due to speak to the RMT's annual meeting on Monday and any sign that he is supporting the strike will be seized on by Cabinet ministers.

The only possible room for manoeuvre in the dispute may be over the package already set out by management in six hours of talks which ended early on Tuesday morning. The offer from Railtrack, the state-owned company which now controls the industry's infrastructure, may provide the basis for a settlement provided the RMT abandons its demand for a wage increase for efficiencies already achieved.

The company calculates that the package will save pounds 4.3m which it is proposing to add to its pounds 85m pay bill, but the union says that the sweeping changes envisaged would save much more. Any extra could be put towards increasing the offer. Railtrack sources concede that there might be more money available if it can be proved that its estimate of the economies are too low.

Union leaders have rejected the proposals, partly on the ground that they would add only pounds 4 a week on average to the earnings of signal staff. The company has acknowledged that the package, which boosts basic wages and abolishes many extra payments, would result in less pay for about a quarter of signal box staff.

It is argued that if the Government succeeds in holding down pay, it may be storing up trouble for the time when ministers are seeking to privatise Railtrack. Potential investors may be reluctant to take over a workforce whose pay grievances are unresolved. Signal box staff are angry that differentials with less skilled employees have been squeezed to the point where workers who clean platforms and trains are paid more that some signal staff. Mr Knapp argues that the Railtrack offer does not resolve that argument.

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