The head of the UK’s largest transport union has said it will not “disarm” itself by agreeing to preconditions for pay talks, at the start of 48 hours of strikes set to cause widespread disruption to train services across Britain on a busy sporting weekend.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch told the BBC it would be “completely irresponsible” for the union — whose members walked out on Friday — to sign up to terms set by train operating companies represented by the Rail Delivery Group.
The continuing row over pay between the RMT and employers, which began in June last year, comes as workers across the public and private sectors push for bigger increases amid the cost of living crisis.
The two days of strikes will affect most train operators in England, with Friday’s walkout by RMT-affiliated guards and station staff roughly halving the number of services. Still fewer services are set to run on Saturday because of a stoppage by train drivers’ union Aslef, which is locked in a separate pay dispute with 14 train operators.
The strike on Saturday will be particularly severe for people trying to reach two of England’s biggest annual sporting events — the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium in London and the Derby race meeting at Epsom Downs in Surrey.
The cup final is between Manchester United and Manchester City, whose supporters would normally have made heavy use of the Avanti West Coast service.
Kevin Parker, general secretary of the Manchester City FC Supporters Club, said fans were “really frustrated that Aslef and the RMT have decided to strike at a time that will impact on supporters from both teams and their families”.
Accusing “both unions” of using supporters as “pawns”, he added that lots of fans had “had to abandon their trip to Wembley or pay increased costs for both travel and accommodation” as a result.
Aslef and the RMT say pay offers for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 financial years amount to real-terms cuts. Train operators have proposed pay rises of 4 per cent for both years for Aslef members, while RMT workers have been offered uplifts of 5 per cent for last year and 4 per cent this year.
The offer to the RMT, which in March resolved a long-running pay dispute with the infrastructure owner Network Rail, includes guaranteed minimum cash amounts that would give the lowest-paid staff a rise of up to 13 per cent over both years.
Lynch on Friday said that, as part of a settlement, the RDG had ordered the union to declare the dispute resolved before entering three months of talks over reforms, including the closure of underused ticket offices.
“They demanded that we do that without any mandate [for further strikes] and without any leverage at the negotiating table,” he told the BBC. “They wanted us to disarm ourselves at the negotiating table and we simply cannot do that. That would be completely irresponsible.”
In a separate letter to MPs, Lynch claimed the dispute had already cost the economy nearly £5bn. The figure was based mainly on lobby group Hospitality UK’s claim its members had lost £3.25bn in revenue from stoppages.
The RDG said it disputed Lynch’s characterisation of the preconditions and that RMT negotiators had a record of agreeing to terms, only to be over-ruled by members of the union’s executive.
It called on the union’s leadership “to engage seriously with the financial challenges the industry faces . . . and come back to the table so we can resolve this dispute”.
In an effort to offset the disruption, the Football Association has arranged 120 coaches, 60 for supporters of each club, to transport fans from Manchester to London on Saturday. It has also arranged extra car parking in Wembley.
Meanwhile, Epsom Downs racecourse has made extra car parking available for the tens of thousands of people expected to attend, warning that no nearby railway stations will be open.
Unions have struck separate deals on pay with Transport for London, Transport for Wales, Merseytravel and ScotRail, meaning their services will be unaffected. Three “open access” commercial operations — Hull Trains, Grand Central and Lumo — are also exempt.
The Department for Transport did not respond to a request for comment.