Unions predict 'summer of discontent'

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The Independent Online
A SUMMER of discontent in the NHS and on the railways and London Underground is threatened by the failure of national pay talks.

Union leaders of 600,000 health workers are set to order a ballot on industrial action after the expected collapse of negotiations with NHS employers in London tomorrow.

Sources within the main health union, Unison, predict that a recommendation for strike action will be put to members if the Government refuses to budge from its 1 per cent offer plus the possibility of extra cash through local bargaining.

A Unison spokeswoman said: "This is serious stuff. It will be industrial action that will mean something."

Preparations for a ballot are in hand. NHS staff will be asked to vote on striking, or alternatively action short of a strike. A final decision on timing will be made as soon as the outcome of the Tory party leadership election becomes clear, "but certainly within 10 days".

NHS chiefs are in a bullish mood after securing acceptance of the 1 per cent award by the Royal College of Midwives, and are certain to reject the health unions' demand for a national 3 per cent rise.

Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the main rail union, RMT, yesterday forecast an even more disruptive repetition of last year's one-day train strikes. Union leaders will decide what form of action to take on Friday after seven separate strike ballots covering more than 50,000 staff are declared.

Mr Knapp said: "I will be very surprised if there is not a 'yes' vote. Rail workers are fed up that BR is about to announce a profit of pounds 400m, and the directors are receiving 21 per cent pay rises while they are held down to 3 per cent. There is a sense of unfairness out there. We will follow the pattern of last year: 24-hour stoppages."

However, the disruption would be greater than in the 1994 signallers' strikes because virtually the entire system would be involved. RMT plans to synchronise its disruption with the train drivers' union, Aslef, which will tomorrow disclose that its 12,000 BR footplate members have also voted to strike over the pay offer.

The London Underground system is also almost certain to be brought into the disruption. RMT members, who form the majority of its workforce, have also been balloted on strike action to increase a 2.75 per cent pay offer, and are understood to have given their backing.

Mr Knapp said the stoppages could be avoided if rail managers improve their offer, which BR says is "final".