UK government and industry figures have expressed optimism over a breakthrough to end the RMT’s long-running national rail strikes after the sector’s biggest union called off some of its industrial action and announced plans to put a revised pay offer from Network Rail to members.
The country’s largest transport union said on Wednesday that it would ballot members on a “new and improved” offer from Network Rail, and would not make a recommendation on which way to vote.
Senior industry executives were taken by surprise by the RMT’s decision to put the offer to members, sparking optimism that a deal to solve a separate dispute with train companies was also now possible.
One senior minister said they were hopeful the union’s shift signalled an end to months of on-off strikes that started last summer, especially as inflation is forecast to fall from the high levels that sparked widespread industrial unrest as unions sought to secure their members better pay.
“It’s one thing to be making these big pay claims when inflation is in double digits, but experts now think it will fall to . . . 3 per cent by the autumn and if that happens then you’d expect less public sympathy for the unions’ position,” the minister said. “The union leaders know that, which is why I think there will be pressure to settle soon.”
The decision marked a significant change in the RMT’s position, which less than a month ago called for “unconditional” pay offers without reforms built in. The union said it would cancel a 24-hour strike at Network Rail on March 16 but was still planning four days of industrial action in a separate dispute with train operating companies on March 16, 18 and 30 and April 1.
Train operating companies called for urgent talks with the union, insisting it should put their pay offer to staff. “Train operating staff will rightly be asking why their union continues to deny them the opportunity to have their say on our equivalent offer,” said the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train companies.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch did not directly address the train companies’ call for talks on Wednesday but said: “We will continue our campaign for a negotiated settlement on all aspects of the railway dispute.”
In its statement about Network Rail’s new offer, the union said it involved “extra money” and added that it was “not making a recommendation on how to vote” in the ballot. This contrasts with the last time the union put a Network Rail proposal to its members in December when it urged them to reject it.
Network Rail had previously offered a 9 per cent rise over two years, with 5 per cent for 2022 and 4 per cent for 2023, and more for the lowest-paid staff.
The RMT said the new proposal altered the timings of the rises to backdate this year’s pay rise to October 2022, which would effectively offer staff more money, including a larger lump sum to help with the cost of living crisis if they accepted the deal.
Industry executives have been hoping that fatigue would set in among the RMT membership in the long-running dispute, leading to pressure on the union leadership to reach a deal with employers. Senior executives have claimed there has been a rise in the numbers of staff clocking on to work on strike days.
The RMT maintains it has strong support among members, pointing to repeated votes in favour of industrial action.
Train drivers, represented by Aslef, are involved in a separate dispute with train companies but have set no new strike dates with negotiations continuing.