Leading Article: Why Mr Knapp should retreat

Click to follow
THE PARADOX of the signal workers' strike, which yesterday disrupted Britain's railways for the 12th day in 10 weeks, is that both the RMT transport union and the management of Railtrack see merit in the other's case. The union accepts the need to reform the management of Britain's signal boxes, but it wants to settle a demand for an interim pay rise first. Railtrack, the public company which inherited Britain's railway lines and stations this year, concedes that signal operators deserve more money, but wants the pay rise to be part of a wider cost-cutting package.

Hence, perhaps, Labour's demand that the Government should swoop onstage, like the deus ex machina of a Euripides comedy, to instruct Railtrack to pay the signalmen what they want. Yet this would be an unsatisfactory outcome. Although taxpayers would hardly notice the immediate cost, such an intervention would signal a return to the Seventies, when the highest pay rises went to the unions with the most belligerent leaders.

Beneath the confusion caused by Railtrack's unhappy mixture of vacillation and aggression, and by the self-defeating interference of ministers, the crux of the dispute is straightforward: the old-style demarcations and working practices of signal boxes are indefensible. Signal staff refuse to make announcements over station PA systems or to operate the next-train indicators on platforms. They demand to be paid in cash rather than by bank transfer, thus costing Railtrack pounds 600,000 a year. Their byzantine allowances cover everything from overtime to shoe leather. The inability of state- employed rail managers to reform such practices is one of the stronger arguments for privatisation.

Railtrack is right to demand that signal staff adopt instead some of the flexibility that has become common elsewhere in British industry. Since the travelling public must eventually pay for the company's overmanning, even when the trains themselves are run by private concerns, this stance deserves more public support.

The uncompromising line taken by Jimmy Knapp, the RMT's general secretary, has been bolstered by last weekend's opinion polls, which showed unexpectedly high public support for the strikers. Yet the poll results may partly be explained by dislike of the Government and of an over-complex rail privatisation, partly by disapproval of the aggressive management style of Robert Horton, Railtrack's chairman, and partly by the nostalgic attachment that many travellers have to the railways. The union will put this support at risk if it escalates the strike.

The danger for Mr Knapp is that Railtrack may force him to do just that. With only a skeleton staff of supervisors and managers, the firm is already keeping one-third of the trains running. With new signal staff in training, and a dribble of signalmen returning to work, Mr Horton may soon be able to sweeten his proposed flexibility deal, and do without those strikers who refuse to accept it.

The safest course for the RMT, therefore, is to declare victory and then discreetly retreat. If Mr Knapp can find a way of fudging his insistence on pay rise before talks, he may win attractive terms from Railtrack in the new package. If not, his union will follow the mining and print unions into decline.