Crisis for Labour as strikes hit thousands

Train passengers in the north of England faced chaos and disruption yesterday after conductors walked out in the latest 24-hour strike over pay.

London commuters, meanwhile, are preparing to deal with a fresh burst of misery as members of Aslef get ready to bring the Underground to a halt for 24 hours from Tuesday evening.

As talks with the Fire Brigade reach an impasse and council workers employed by private firms also consider strike action, Britain is facing its worst period of industrial relations since Tony Blair first came to power.

This was the 19th one-day action by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union in their nine-month dispute with Arriva Trains Northern. Station and retail staff also walked out in a separate pay dispute.

The union general secretary, Bob Crow, said: "Arriva must understand that the RMT will no longer tolerate what are among the lowest pay rates in the rail industry." He also claimed Arriva had bullied union members from the beginning of the dispute.

But Arriva'smanaging director, Euan Cameron, said: "A number of good offers have been put on the table and it is time for the RMT to take stock of the situation."

The latest in the series of Tube strikes follows the rejection by the train-drivers' union, Aslef, of a 3 per cent pay offer. Another 24-hour stoppage is planned for 1 October.

The Fire Brigades Union, meanwhile, has called for a ballot of its members for strike action, following a "derisory" 4 per cent pay offer from local authority employers. It would mark the first national walk-out in 25 years by Britain's 55,000 firefighters.

Council workers employed by private firms also begin voting on industrial action tomorrow. The GMB general union is to ballot 300,000 people who work in local authority positions but are paid by private contractors. They aim to bring an end to a two-tier system that has allowed discrepancies of pay and conditions among co-workers.

The dispute comes as the Government made it clear it is determined to press ahead with plans to give the private sector a bigger role in running public services, despite trade union calls for private finance initiatives to be halted.

The GMB's general secretary, John Edmonds, said: "We still hope to sit down with ministers to resolve this issue but the fact is that our members feel neither Government nor the employers are listening to their concerns."

A Downing Street spokesman said: "It is not our policy to comment on individual disputes other than to say we wish to see the minimum disruption to the public and constantly urge all sides to work together."

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