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Lord Berkeley: It’s not too late for ministers to get round the table with the unions and end the rail strikes

4 min read

Transport worker strikes are back with us this year after a period of relative calm. There is pent up anger among many workers caused by a combination of Brexit, Covid and inflation heading above 10 per cent.

Disruption to passengers and freight is causing misery to many. The replacement by P&O Ferries of some 800 seafarers by agency staff has shown what employers seem able to get away with. Government response was to suggest that the company chairman should be sacked, and to bring in legislation seeking to protect seafarers from such action in the future. The RMT has calculated that this action reduced P&O Ferries’ labour costs by 30 per cent so one can understand the concerns and threats of strike action in many parts of the transport sector – air, maritime, rail and road.

In any dispute, it takes two sides to negotiate, the easier it is when there is mutual respect.  However, rail is different from the ferries in that the owner and controller is government – not just the Department for Transport but the Treasury which, at present, has taken on a micromanagement role in respect of rail where every decision, down to the need for Network Rail to get approval to paint railings at one station from Treasury.

The employers have their hands tied behind their backs as to what they can negotiate and offer

So, in the rail sector the two parties who have the ability to resolve the disputes are the trade unions and the government, which controls every detail of the money that the rail employers receive. 

Rail worker salaries have not kept up with inflation and there are many restrictive practices which need resolving to reduce costs. Given the freedom to negotiate, I believe that Network Rail and the train operators, who are the actual employers, could reach a settlement with the unions that was fair to both sides, but the employers have their hands tied behind their backs as to what they can negotiate and offer. Ministers dig their heels in and refuse to even meet the unions and the latter, in turn, refuse to have meaningful discussions with the employers as they know that the Treasury is holding the puppet strings.

Grant Shapps’ solution is to bring in legislation to restrict or ban strikes. This will take some months if it gets through Parliament and, in the meantime, passenger and freight customers suffer.

A better solution is to persuade the unions in the essential transport sector, which goes much further than just rail – bus, air, ferries etc – to agree to guarantee to keep a proportion of services operating during a strike. This has been done for many years in France, which used to be plagued by rail and other strikes, where one service in four was guaranteed to run.  Many would see this as a sensible compromise between the right to strike and the damage that strikes can do to people’s livelihood.

For now, people will be watching the way in which different groups of people employed or controlled by government are treated when it comes to pay disputes, as well as ministers’ comments on pay disputes in the private sector.  At present, there is a glaring lack of consistency about government policy on this; in the ferry sector, Grant Shapps suggested that the chairman of P&O Ferries should resign for sacking 800 workers and replacing them with agency staff.  If this government view of those negotiating were translated to the rail sector, where government is the effective employer, there would be claims that the Secretary of State should sack himself for failing to engage with the railway trades unions.  

Government has the unique power as effective employer, to get round the table with the representatives of the rail workers and sort out the issues that are causing misery to so many. It is never too late to start!   


Lord Berkeley is a Labour peer and former chairman of the Rail Freight Group.   

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