Leading Article: Peace derailed by ministers

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MILLIONS of travellers stranded by today's rail strike deserve an explanation from the Government. They are entitled to be told why ministers fuelled a seven- year-old pay dispute to such an extent that nearly every overground train in Britain has been halted.

Few people will feel much initial sympathy for the 4,600 signal operators whose stoppage has frozen the network. Their 11 per cent pay claim sounds unreasonable in these straitened times. To back it up with a strike that damages so many people is outrageous. Such action harks back to the endless industrial disruption of the Seventies and reawakens the image of unions abusing their considerable powers.

But nothing in politics is ever quite as simple as it appears. Until Monday night all indications were that today's stoppage would be cancelled. Union negotiators were content that a 5.7 per cent increase was on offer. They expected that this would largely settle the complaint that signal operators missed productivity deals awarded to other rail workers. Signal staff require considerable training. Usually their task is routine, but when points fail it is complex and carries heavy responsibility. Many operators are disgruntled at earning little more than platform staff.

There seemed to be real hope that these grievances would be assuaged. Then, on Monday, the proposals disappeared. Railtrack, the company that administers the network, suddenly changed its mind about the offer. Its managers may claim officially that no formal proposal was made, but union negotiators with decades of experience had a different impression. Privately, industry sources confirm the union side of the story.

However, the villain of the piece was not Railtrack but the Government which prevailed upon the management to break understandings and take a tougher stance. By their actions, ministers unnecessarily brought the railways from the brink of peace to bitter acrimony.

Their excuse is likely to be that the proposed increase would have damaged attempts to hold down public sector pay deals. Yet this rings hollow given that these negotiations concerned a long-standing dispute which has already been settled for other workers. Such an explanation also makes nonsense of belief in government that nationalised industries should be broken up and made responsible for their own finances prior to privatisation. Ministers are hypocritical when they speak of ceding control yet continue to interfere in the day-to- day running of these industries.

There is a further distasteful aspect to this saga. One does not need a Machiavellian mind to recognise that this strike distracts attention from Conservative defeats in the European elections and instead focuses it on Labour and the trade union movement.

Those struck in traffic jams today, and the thousands of businesses which will inevitably be hit by the strike, will want to know whether the Government put political opportunism ahead of their basic needs.