The Government has prevented a rail company from improving a pay offer that could prevent more than six months of strikes, it emerged yesterday.
While Arriva Trains Northern insisted that the government-controlled Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) had played no role in talks, the authority indicated that it had vetoed a wage rise of more than 4 per cent.
Commuters across the north of England will be hit today by the 14th in a series of 24-hour stoppages by conductors in protest. The RMT union plans another nine day-long walkouts, ending in strikes on Christmas and New Year's Eve.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, said Arriva had awarded a pay rise of 18 per cent, improved conditions and holidays to train drivers but expected other staff to accept a worse deal. "Throughout this dispute the company has made matters worse by vindictively stopping overtime and rest-day working and threatening our reps with the sack for daring to speak to the press. [Arriva] can end this dispute by getting around the table with us and hammering out a fair pay deal."
A spokesman for the SRA said that under franchise agreements the authority could block wage rises above the increase in the average earnings index where a train licence had less than 12 months to run. Officials insisted on the clause to stop companies agreeing large wage rises that might have to be paid by an incoming franchise-holder if the company lost the licence. The Arriva franchise is up for review next February.
The authority said the present earnings figure was 3.9 per cent but had used its discretion to allow the offer to be rounded up to four per cent. The SRA officials said the 18 per cent increase for drivers was allowed to go through because their union had agreed productivity improvements and because of an acute shortage of such staff. The authority confirmed that it was waiving financial penalties that could have been levied on Arriva for changing its timetables on strike days.
Steve Coe, of the moderate TSSA white-collar union, which is in a dispute over restructuring jobs of station staff, said: "We are almost having to negotiate with the SRA via the company because the SRA has the veto over any deal ... they are the organ grinders. But they are not sitting at the table; the company cannot negotiate properly."
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