Unions threaten strike action on two fronts

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Union leaders are expected to announce the first national rail strike today for almost a decade, signalling further bad news for ministers alarmed by the spread of wildcat action by firefighters.

Members of the RMT union at Network Rail are understood to have voted in favour of the stoppages, which will bring trains to a halt late next week unless agreement is reached over pay, pensions and benefits.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, has threatened strikes that could lead to closure of the network for 48 hours but spread disruption over three days, possibly starting on Friday next week and affecting the bank holiday weekend.

RMT members at London Underground are also expected to vote in favour of walkouts, which would be co-ordinated with stoppages on the national network next month.

The Fire Brigades Union said yesterday that most local services had been hit by unofficial action, which threatened to re-ignite a national conflict. The dispute was sparked by the suspension of 36 firefighters in Manchester who refused to operate new anti-terrorism equipment. Union members were meeting last night to discuss plans to ballot the Greater Manchester membership on whether to take industrial action in the dispute.

The union's executive warned that if any firefighter was dismissed there would be an immediate recall of the FBU national conference with a recommendation for nationwide strike action. Last night, firefighters around the country were only answering emergency calls, in sympathy with their colleagues in Manchester.

The conflict began on Monday when firefighters in Salford were sent home for refusing to work on the equipment in protest at the failure to finalise a productivity deal which ended last year's national strike. The same firefighters were sent home again last night, on a further 24-hour suspension, after management officials demanded they sign a form agreeing to use the equipment.

The union has accused employers of introducing last-minute changes to the productivity deal, which has held up payment of a 3.5 per cent rise, backdated to last November. Employers denied the charge and said the union had walked away from talks to resolve a row over "stand-down" time, when firefighters remain on duty during the night but do not carry out training or inspections.

Christina Jebb, chairwoman of the fire service employers, said: "I would like the FBU to repudiate the action and return to the negotiating table."

Andy Gilchrist, the FBU's general secretary, said the union had reached agreement in principle with the employers, but he said: "We are angered at attempts to move the goalposts time after time."

Mr Gilchrist said stand-down time was raised as an issue at the last minute. He denied that the union had walked out and accused employers of "dragging their feet" for more than month. He said it was a "fabrication" to suggest that the union had refused to attend talks.

Unions in the rail industry and the fire service have been strongly critical of the Government's refusal to enhance employees' rights. The RMT has been expelled from Labour and next month a reconvened Fire Brigades Union conference will debate whether to renounce its affiliation to Labour.

* The British National Party is threatening legal action if postal workers carry out a threat to boycott the party's election literature. The Communication Workers' Union in the South-west is asking postal workers not to deliver BNP material in the run-up to the European and local elections on 10 June.