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12 January 2023

Mick Lynch: Government has “a Stalinist obsession” over strike negotiations

Speaking to MPs, Lynch put the blame for prolonged industrial action firmly at the government’s door.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union, has claimed the government has “a Stalinist obsession” with control in train operators’ negotiations with striking workers.

Lynch made the comments in a session with the Transport Select Committee on Tuesday (10 January). Since the RMT began its current wave of industrial action last June, Lynch has appeared in front of the transport committee several times and his appearances have followed similar themes – generally focusing on why the RMT is striking and what negotiations with train companies have been like – but the latest session had an added element: the government’s new Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.

What is the bill about and what did Lynch say about it?

The intention of the bill, which had its first reading in Parliament on Monday, is to ensure that minimum levels of service, to be agreed between unions and employers, continue during strikes in the public sector – such as the NHS, rail, education and more. Lynch described the bill to the committee as “an infringement of civil liberties”.

Should unions and public sector bosses not be able to agree minimum service levels, the government will intervene and decide. Grant Shapps, the Business Secretary, who is also the former transport secretary, would have the power “to make regulations providing for levels of service where there are strikes in relevant services”, according to explanatory notes for the bill.

“If they were doing that in Putin’s Russia, or in Iran or China, they would rightly be condemned. Conscripting workers to go to work, against their will, is an outrage. And that’s what this legislation will bring forward,” Lynch said, adding that he and his union “will challenge it in every way that we can”.

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How are negotiations in the rail industry progressing?

Not well. When asked by Iain Stewart, the committee’s chairman, how close the rail disputes, which have lasted 18 months, were to being solved on a scale of 1-10 (the higher the number, the closer all parties are to a resolution), Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef), replied: “Zero. We’re further away [from a resolution] than when we started.”

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“I wouldn’t disagree with that,” added Frank Ward, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA).

What are the stumbling blocks?

In early December Network Rail offered staff – comprising signallers and engineers – a 9 per cent pay rise, split over two years, which was rejected by RMT members in a vote. The Rail Delivery Group, which represents train companies, offered drivers an 8 per cent rise – a backdated 4 per cent for 2022 and an equal boost for 2023 – contingent on changes to working practices. Whelan said yesterday that he couldn’t back “any one element of it”.

Unions remain tight-lipped on specifics, but Lynch said all parties were “a long way on pay”. One of the biggest issues is about “what they’re calling modernisation”, said Lynch. In a previous session with the committee, Lynch said: “What they [the government and train operators] call modernisation… we sometimes call cuts.”

Lynch said he and other union heads “don’t know” how far companies are still willing to take job cuts following strikes. Plans to close ticket offices are a point of contention, while proposals to whittle down the number of support staff including guards, and the adoption of driver-only trains (and the potential for driverless trains in the future), are “inherently unsafe”, said Whelan. Lynch added that that was something “we will never accept… and we won’t continue with any talks that has that as a prerequisite”.

What happens next?

Throughout media and select committee appearances, Lynch has been clear that the Department for Transport (DfT) has the power to end disputes.

Lynch and the RMT have been keen to stress that private rail operators who are awarded their routes through the publicly owned Network Rail and the DfT are not able to be flexible and negotiate terms without approval from the government. An RMT legal briefing about the powers the DfT holds notes that train companies have a “duty to agree a mandate for any negotiation with unions on any matter with the secretary of state”, and that they “must stay within this mandate and cannot vary it without the government’s approval”.

Highlighting what he sees as his union’s desire to settle, Lynch pointed to settled disputes the RMT resolved with operators in areas where transport is devolved away from government, citing agreements made with Transport for London and Merseyrail. “What we get from the DfT is provocations,” he said. “It seems to me that there is almost a Stalinist obsession, can I say, in the DfT, about central control. And you can see that in the [franchise] contracts.”

[See also: Mick Lynch: There’s a “corrupt” relationship between the government and train operators]