Rail strike 'certain' after angry exchange: BR chairman accuses union chief of following political agenda after talks lasting seven minutes

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The Independent Online
TOMORROW'S rail strike is certain to go ahead after a brief but bitter exchange last night between the British Rail chairman and the leader of the industry's biggest union.

In a seven-minute session at BR's headquarters, Sir Bob Reid accused Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers' union, of adopting a much tougher position than when he started negotiations and following a political agenda rather than an industrial one.

Mr Knapp's version of the encounter was that Sir Bob had been abusive: 'I've never been treated like that in 35 years. I'm staggered,' he said.

Sir Bob, however, said that he had been 'mesmerised' by Mr Knapp's newly fundamentalist stance. The attitude adopted by the RMT leader led him to think that it was now a question of 'who runs the railways'.

Referrring to his union's insistence on no compulsory redundancies, Mr Knapp said: 'We're not talking about jobs for life or challenging who runs the railways.'

The only point of agreement in yesterday's meeting was that tomorrow's strike was certain to go ahead.

Sir Bob confirmed that the 'check off' system in which management deducts union subscriptions from wages, would be abolished following tomorrow's stoppage.

Earlier, Paul Watkinson, BR's director of personnel, said he had reached 'the bottom line' in negotiations last Thursday, while Mr Knapp hinted that the campaign of industrial action might switch to mid-week causing greater disruption to services.

The executive of the 16,000-strong train drivers' union, Aslef, which is also staging a 24-hour stoppage tomorrow, is due to meet today to discuss a paper from management aimed at reassuring the union over the impact of privatisation. In the dispute involving RMT, both sides confirmed that the main sticking point was over contractors in the industry. The union is seeking a guarantee that outside companies will not be called upon to do work traditionally performed by BR employees. Management agreed that no one should be forced out of the industry by the introduction of outside companies, but that those 'displaced' might have to be redeployed elsewhere.

Mr Watkinson said that the union's insistence on pressing ahead with a second 24-hour stoppage simply brought privatisation nearer. He added: 'It's just one more day on which people can find out they don't really need the railway. After a couple of days of strikes people find other ways of getting to work. We are fighting for our survival here'.

Mr Knapp denounced BR for failing to negotiate over the Easter weekend. The delay had 'seriously damaged' any chances of reaching an agreement and stopping Friday's strike. He added that it was 'surprising' that Aslef had not been called in for talks.