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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Travel
Simon Calder

Union boss Mick Lynch refuses to rule out future train strikes: ‘We never wanted this dispute’

Simon Calder

The general secretary of the biggest rail union, the RMT, is in his office contemplating almost 18 months of industrial strife.

“It’s been worth it for our members,” says Mick Lynch.

After more than 30 days of walk-outs, his members have voted overwhelmingly to accept a pay deal that offers a 5 per cent pay rise backdated to 2022, with further negotiations to come.

Mr Lynch told the Independent Travel Podcast:“We’ve defended our terms and conditions. We’ve defended our pension scheme, which is vitally important – a final salary pension scheme.

“We’ve not made one concession. Our members voted for that strike action four times under the legislation and they stuck by the campaign.

“Now they’ve got an outcome which is an interim outcome – it’s not more than that – which gives them a bit of peace at Christmas time and some back pay that they can store up. So that is a step forward. It’s progress in the dispute. It was worth it.”

The prime minister’s personal disdain for the railway is evident. Rishi Sunak uses helicopters to cover short journeys such as London to Southampton, and chose to halve Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights, encouraging a switch from trains to planes. Many long-serving railway figures, and passengers with long memories, fear that Mick Whelan – general secretary of Aslef – is right when he says “the industry is going into massive managed decline”.

The train drivers’ struggle continues, with a nine-day overtime ban and rolling regional strikes reminding rail passengers of the perils of planning a trip. Mick Lynch says “I support Aslef. We want a deal for all railway workers. We want the companies to make reasonable proposals and an unconditional pay offer would help.”

The RMT is preparing for company-by-company negotiations early next year, with a view to finding lasting settlements by Easter. But with a tangle of talks ahead with train firms – as well as publicly owned Network Rail – Mr Lynch warns that future strikes should not be ruled out.

“Yes, it has been worth it and our members, I believe, will be prepared to take whatever action is necessary to go forward in the future.”

Since the first national rail strikes began in June 2022, the union boss has become an icon of the left.

Mr Lynch seems comfortable with the role: “We think our efforts have galvanised many working people in this country to say: ‘We don’t have to put up with the continual erosion and corrosion of our working lives.’

“That there is an opportunity to come back at the employers and say: ‘Give the British worker a square deal so that we can get on with our working lives and look after our family and have the prospect of a brighter future’.”

Despite the prospect of a settlement with Mick Lynch’s RMT, the much more damaging strikes by train drivers belonging to the Aslef union show no sign of abating – corroding public confidence in rail still further.

One senior rail industry insider, who did not want to be named, fears that using the railway as a battleground for a wider class struggle is a dangerous strategy.

“For me, it’s a fight the unions have been after for ages, and the railways just happened to be the place they found it. As a passionate advocate of the railway, it pains me greatly the damage these strikes have done to the industry, at a time when we should have been thinking how we could make it better for our customers – and our people.

“What’s particularly worrying is that there is no acknowledgment of a need to reform the railway and cut costs.”

While train firms scramble to get backdated wages paid before Christmas, the deep financial problems facing the railway remain. Ticket revenue is about 20 per cent down on pre-Covid levels, requiring billions more in taxpayer support for an already subsidy-greedy industry.

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