Thousands of workers go on 'disastrous' strike in run-up to Christmas

Industrial action continues to wreak havoc across air, rail and postal services over festive period

Lucy Pasha-Robinson
Sunday 18 December 2016 15:59
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Stranded commuters at London Victoria railway station
Stranded commuters at London Victoria railway station

A wave of strikes will be launched by thousands of workers this week, hitting rail, post and airline industries in the run-up to Christmas.

A series of disputes have flared over issues including jobs, pay, pensions and safety involving some of the country's biggest trade unions.

Members of the Communication Workers Union have gone on strike for five days, in protest at job losses, the closure of a final salary pension scheme and the franchising of Crown Post Offices.

Southern Rail strikes cause travel chaos for passengers

Officials dismissed any suggestions that the strikes were co-ordinated or part of a conspiracy to bring down the Government.

But they come come amid growing tensions with the government and have been described and potentially "disastous” for the public, according to Diane Abbott.

The biggest disputes include:

  • Baggage handlers: 1,500 check-in staff, baggage handlers and cargo crew at 18 UK airports are planning a 48-hour strike from December 23 in a pay dispute. All work for Swissport and are members of the Unite union. Unite and Swissport will hold talks on Tuesday.
  • Cabin crew: Up to 4,500 British Airways cabin crew members based at Heathrow will strike on December 25 and 26 in a pay dispute backed by Unite. BA said it has approached conciliation service Acas to organise talks.
  • Pilots: Virgin Atlantic pilots will take industrial action short of a strike and work "strictly to contract" from December 23 over a union representation dispute.
  • Post Office workers: 4,000 Post Office workers will strike for five days from December 19 in a dispute over job security and pensions. Talks between the Post Office and the Communication Workers Union broke down on Thursday.
  • Rail workers: Southern Railway conductors are due to hold a two-day strike from Monday, and over the New Year. A five-day train drivers' strike is due to be held from January 9 over the removal of guards from trains.

The shadow Home Secretary criticised Southern Rail, which is locked in a bitter dispute with union chiefs over plans to introduce a “Driver Only Operation”, urging the public to remember “it takes two to cause a strike”.

“It is not just the trade union, it is also the problems and the incompetence of some management, and Southern Rail is an example of that,” Ms Abbott said.

"Of course we think about the public we serve, and, of course, these strikes are going to be very disastrous, if they all go ahead, for the public over Christmas time, but people do have a legal right to strike.”

Her comments came after her Labour colleague Meg Hillier, Public Accounts Committee chairman, said union chiefs needed a “wake-up call” about the impact on hard-working people over Christmas.

"I think it's absolutely right people should have the right to strike, but I think it is a very unfortunate combination for people travelling, workers, at a particularly difficult time of year.

"And I think that all trade unions, even though they are fighting for their rights, need to really think about the impact on the people they are actually there to serve, their customers, or their passengers.

"And I think that there needs to be a bit of a wake-up call about the impact on hard working people who are trying to get to work, or go on holiday. And I think that if they are not careful they could be shooting themselves in the foot.”

The RMT has held 22 days of strike action since April to dispute Southern’s plans to change the guard’s role to "onboard supervisor” — checking tickets and helping passengers but not opening or closing the doors.

Members of Aslef, the drivers’ union, held three days of strikes last week in protest, closing the entire Southern network on each of the strike days.

RMT members will also walk out on Monday 19 and Tuesday 20 December, with a four-day walkout planned across the New Year from Saturday 31 December to Tuesday 2 January.

Drivers will then strike for most of the second week of the New Year: Monday 9 to Saturday 14 January.

Ian Hislop explains why government is at fault for Southern rail situation

Critics of the strikes have said the overarching reason for the walkouts is a political motivation to discredit the Conservative Government.

On Sunday it emerged the union leader behind the Christmas rail strikes said industrial action had been coordinated to “bring down this bloody working-class-hating Tory government”,

RMT president Sean Hoyle said the union's "rule number one" was to “strive to replace the capitalist system with a socialist order”.

The claims were downplayed by the RMT general secretary, Mick Cash, who insisted train workers are staging a series of strikes this Christmas because they are worried about the safety of passengers.

Conservative Home Secretary Amber Rudd also criticised the unions, calling for an end to "this miserable period".

“It is totally unacceptable that our local area and communities will suffer further strikes over driver-only operated trains when they already run safely across much of the UK network, and when current staff will take home the same pay following the changes proposed by the train company,” Ms Rudd said.

“Southern's plans, opposed by the unions, will lead to better journeys for passengers. I call on both sides to come together and bring an end to this miserable period of strikes and industrial action suffered by our constituents.”

A Royal Mail spokesperson said: “There will be little or no impact on Royal Mail as a result of the CWU strike at the Post Office. Deliveries will carry on as normal and the last posting dates for Christmas remain unchanged. Our 120,000 Royal Mail frontline colleagues are not involved in the Post Office dispute.

“Post Office limited has over 11,000 branches which will continue to operate as normal. Customers who need to post at a Post Office should use these branches.

"Royal Mail customers will also continue to have access to Royal Mail services including pre-paid parcel drop- off through over 1,200 Customer Service Points at Delivery Offices nationwide."

It is not just the railways likely to cause chaos for Britons travelling over the festive period, dubbed the "Christmas of discontent".

Planned industrial action is likely to be carried out by rail, postal, and airport workers.

Up to 4,500 British Airways cabin crew based at Heathrow airport are to strike on Christmas Day and Boxing Day in a row over pay and conditions.

1,500 Swissport check-in staff, baggage handlers and cargo crew at 18 UK airports are planning a 48-hour strike from December 23 in a pay dispute.

Union Unite will hold talks with Swissport next week in an attempt to avert the action.

Virgin Atlantic pilots will also work "strictly to contract" from December 23 over a union representation dispute.

4,000 Post Office workers will strike for five days from December 19 in a dispute over job security and pensions, with talks between the Post Office and Communication Workers Union breaking down last week.

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