Empty tracks at Manchester Piccadilly station

Breakthrough in British strike negotiations has festive benefits

Manchester Piccadillly empty platforms during June 2022 strikes 2022, Network Rail

It may not be peace. It certainly isn’t love. It is however a memorandum of understanding which would pause any strike action until after christmas. They may not be shaking hands on a deal, but the main union and the representatives of the employers are, at least for now, not firing salvos of rhetoric at each other. A breakthrough offer has been made, and a breakthrough offer to consult the membership may just yet put an end to the longest running industrial dispute in the history of the British railway industry. Only, it’s not over yet.

In an announcement that surprised the industry watchers, and gave the long-suffering public a sense of relief, the protagonists in this battle of wills have, just perhaps, reached a compromise. The Rail Delivery Group, representing the operators in the industry, has made a revised, and significantly more generous offer has been made to the RMT. The trades union, for their part, have agreed, for the first time, to put the offer to their members. The terms of the ballot of railway employees will also include a suspension of industrial action for at least six months. The ballot runs until the end of November.

Mutually agreed way forward

It may not be the end. It may not even be the beginning of the end but, to paraphrase a leader used to long, bitter conflict, it may well be the end of the beginning. Following further negotiations between the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and RMT (sometimes known as the Rail, Maritime and Transport union), a memorandum of understanding on the current dispute has been developed between the parties. A joint statement says it sets out a process for a mutually agreed way forward, including a backdated 2022 pay rise for staff and job security guarantees. Media sources put the level of pay rise at five per cent, and the job security guarantees amounting to a package of safeguards, over and above the recent abandonment of the ill-fated ticket office closure programme.

Train at speed through Leyland station in UK (Image RIA)
At the double – there is a possible speedy end in sight for the long running UK rail dispute (Image RIA)

This will now be put to RMT members in each of the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) in a referendum vote. If accepted, this MOU will terminate the national dispute mandate, creating a pause and respite from industrial action over the Christmas period and into Spring next year. It will also allow for negotiations on proposed reforms to take place at local train operating company level through established collective bargaining structures. These discussions would be aimed at addressing the companies’ proposals on the changing needs and expectations of passengers as well as unlocking further increases for staff, in order to help to secure a sustainable, long-term future for the railway and all those who work on it.

Prospect of growth back in the limelight

It is the first time since the dispute began that both sides have issued a joint statement. The tone of the dispute has also shifted significantly into a more collaborative arena. “This is a welcome development”, said Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary. “Our members will now decide in an e-referendum whether they want to accept this new offer from the RDG.” The Rail Delivery Group did not add to the statement, but there has been an air of cooperation between the parties already this month, with disputes being resolved in other areas of the rail network and a general dial-down of the acerbic reactions from both sides.

While the membership has still to ratify the MoU, there is optimism that the willingness of the employers to put forward a revised offer will persuade them to vote in favour. Taking the threat of strikes off the table (for at least six months) gives the industry breathing space. Some external factors may have played a part too. The better than expected recovery of the rail industry since the pandemic – particularly passenger numbers – has put the prospect of growth back in the limelight. Longer term, there is the political certainty of a general election within the next year. That might even be announced before the six month moratorium on industrial action expires. It may be cynical to suggest that a government without the life-expectancy to necessarily have to account for the consequences, would be more amenable to reaching a generous settlement with the rail unions.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

Add your comment

characters remaining.

Log in through one of the following social media partners to comment.