TUC: Congress lauds strikers as rail dispute deepens: Delegates call for mass rally to demonstrate support for signal workers

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The Independent Online
STRIKING signal workers yesterday became the heroes of the Trades Union Congress in Blackpool ahead of today's 24-hour strike as ministers offered no hope of an early settlement.

Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, said that no new initiatives had been discussed in a meeting on Tuesday with Robert Horton, chairman of Railtrack. 'I don't think the issue is about initiatives,' he said. The RMT transport union was setting up hurdles to overcome before negotiations could begin.

Dr Mawhinney's remarks come amid internal industry projections that the network could be virtually halved if the dispute continues until Christmas.

Today for the first time with the help of volunteers from British Rail, management hopes to provide 7,500 trains - more than half the normal total.

At Congress, cheers and applause from 900 delegates greeted rail union leaders who appealed to the public not to use trains on strike days.

In the wake of Tony Blair's refusal to back the strike, the conference voted unanimously to back the industrial action and called for a mass demonstration in London to support the cause.

Wilf Proudfoot, the RMT's assistant general secretary, told delegates that some signal workers were beginning to experience real hardship after 15 days of strike action which began in June.

Mr Proudfoot, who received a three-minute standing ovation, said: 'All we want is a fair day's pay for a fair day's work - we are not asking for the world. The Government is determined to take on the railway workers but all we are asking for is the right to get back into negotiations.'

Striking signallers had been forced to put up with intimidation from management and whispering campaigns about their promotion prospects. 'What they don't realise is that they do not weaken but strengthen our resolve to see it through to the finish.'

An emergency motion on the dispute, tabled by the RMT and Aslef, the train drivers' union, called for a full-scale public investigation into safety on strike days. The proposition said there were a growing number of 'irregularities', mis-routing of trains and dangerous incidents at level crossings.

Ken Cameron, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, argued that passengers were risking their own safety by travelling on strike days and said his members did not want to 'pick up the pieces'.

Lew Adams, general secretary of Aslef, said there was little doubt that it was less safe to travel on strike days. He appealed for ministers to allow free negotiations 'before people are killed'.

Richard Rosser, leader of the TSSA white-collar union, accused Railtrack of 'incompetence and weakness'. He said the company directors should risk their own jobs and settle the dispute despite the Government.

John Monks, TUC general secretary, said it was 'dishonest' of David Hunt, The Prime Minister's new troubleshooter, to claim that the dispute was in the hands of management.

BR said it expected to run the best strike-day services yet, with a number of routes opening for the first time.