Separate agendas sustain rail stalemate: Martin Whitfield analyses the impasse over the tangled issues of pay and restructuring that prevents an agreement

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The Independent Online
BOTH sides in the rail dispute express a sincere willingness to talk and negotiate. The problem is that they want to sit down at different tables and discuss different things.

For Railtrack, the top of the agenda is a radical restructuring programme which changes the way signal staff work and are rewarded. Only such a deal is said to be able to deliver wage increases financed through future productivity that can escape the Government's public-sector pay limits.

The company has been attempting to sell its package to the 4,700 signal staff since the beginning of July with management visits to signal boxes, an information 'hotline' and frequent letters to home addresses.

Members of Railtrack's restructuring roadshow - still touring signal boxes - are believed to be having a hard time convincing signal staff of the programme's virtues as it would leave large numbers up to pounds 100 a month worse off.

Many would gain, some by up to 10 per cent on earnings, but the majority are being asked to make concessions for pay rises of less than 4 per cent. An offer to increase basic rates between 13 and 26 per cent, add an extra two days' holiday and cut the standard working week is heavily conditional and means lower earnings in overtime and allowances.

The conditional offer requires signal staff to undertake other duties, makes Sunday working compulsory, and gives the potential for 12-hour shifts instead of a maximum of 9 hours 45 minutes.

Signal staff would also have to agree to be more flexible and willing to make public-address announcements, program platform indicators and use electronic communications equipment.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) maintains that the 10 weeks of strikes do not concern restructuring but interim payments to cover from the end of the current pay deal in April to 1 October, the planned beginning of any new agreement. Without a settlement of this dispute, it maintains it is impossible to move on to discuss restructuring.

Officials from Acas, the conciliation service, have been attempting to coax the participants to scrap their separate agendas and agree a formula to end the disruption. To date, common ground has been hard to find. Robert Horton, chairman of Railtrack, said yesterday that the company had made 'all the offers we can make' on the matter of interim payments and claimed the union was demanding money before it would talk about restructuring.

'Our offer to sit down and throw away the key and talk about restructuring until we reach a settlement still stands but we've made all the offers we can make. We are not prepared to pay to open negotiations,' he said.

The company's final offer was made on 27 June and has not been changed although hints of potential movement have been floated in the press. It would give a lump sum payment of pounds 250, a general pay increase awarded to all BR staff of 2.5 per cent and an unconsolidated rise of 6 per cent on basic rates. Leaders of the RMT argue that the offer is lower than the 5.7 per cent allegedly on the table before the intervention of John MacGregor, the former Secretary of State for Transport.

The union wants 4.6 per cent on basic pay, plus the 2.5 per cent, plus an hour off the working day. Then it says it will talk about new working practices. RMT has no objection in principle to any of Railtrack's proposals and believes an agreement on all points could be negotiated within a couple of weeks. RMT states that the four main areas of disagreement are over the management's demand for compulsory Sunday working, 12-hour shifts, lower shift and overtime premiums and the elements of greater flexibility.

The complex details are the very stuff of long discussions at Railtrack's headquarters. But the difficulty is getting negotiators to talk to the same agenda.

Off the rails, page 16