Supervisors poised to back rail strikes: Management considers legal action to block escalation. Barrie Clement reports

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The Independent Online
RAILTRACK is considering legal action to prevent strikes next month by supervisors who will today help management provide more than one in four trains during the first 48-hour stoppage by signal workers.

Leaders of the RMT union disclosed that they expected a result from a strike ballot among 500 supervisory staff on 4 August. A 'yes' vote could severely undermine services in the second 48- hour strike called by RMT in the week beginning 7 August. Given a statutory seven-day notice of action, however, the strike could not start before Saturday 12 August.

Lawyers for Railtrack could seek an injunction against RMT on the basis that supervisors would be taking unlawful secondary action. Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the union, said yesterday that the RMT supervisors had a direct interest in the pay dispute. Their salaries were based on those of signal staff, he said.

Supervisors had become increasingly angry about the degree of 'arm twisting' going on to force them to take over strikers' jobs. Mr Knapp predicted a 'yes' vote in the ballot. The RMT transport union revealed that next week's day-long stoppage would start on Wednesday at noon, disrupting the network for two days.

Senior managers at Railtrack, the state-owned company which runs the industry's infrastructure, hope to improve provision today partly through more RMT members crossing picket lines. Mr Knapp however insisted that the strike remained 'solid'.

A number of lines will be open today for the first time on a strike day, including the London Victoria to Gatwick airport link.

Also 'new' on a strike day will be Great Eastern services into London Liverpool Street, an extension of services in the Manchester and Scotland areas and more suburban services in Kent.

Mr Knapp said Railtrack was staffing signal boxes with unqualified supervisors and managers, having watered down restrictions on their use.

Railtrack indicated that the strict qualifications issued at the beginning of the dispute were now tempered by the professional judgement of senior managers. 'There is no question however of watering down safety standards. RMT is simply scaremongering.'

Brian Wilson, Labour's transport spokesman, urged Brian Mawhinney, the new Secretary of State for Transport, to 'disengage' the Government from the dispute and 'allow Railtrack to negotiate without political interference'.

Dr Mawhinney said last night that Bob Horton, chairman of Railtrack, had assured him yesterday that the union's concerns that some members would be worse off as a result of restructuring would be addressed.

Dr Mawhinney said: 'I understand the particular concern which Mr Knapp has expressed . . . that there will be some who will be worse off as a result of the changes - despite the substantial improvements for most which restructuring will bring.

'Mr Horton assured me this afternoon that Railtrack will take steps to address this issue.'

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