WE are all aware that rail workers began their first 48-hour strike at the start of the new year, with criticism from ministers and rail bosses for the action that has left only a fifth of services across the country running. Transport Secretary, Mark Harper has demanded that the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) get “off the picket line and round the negotiating table.”

As someone who is involved in these kinds of challenging negotiations in my trade union role, it is only right that I highlight that it is not only the unions that create the barriers – the other side of the table can too.

The RMT say that they had been available and eager to negotiate throughout the Christmas period, but the rail employers have not arranged any formal negotiations with the union to resolve the dispute.

It may seem that the Government have waited until the strikes take place to make statements, but if they had wanted to get a settlement and get the strikes off, they could have taken a bit more action and got things moving before now.

Contracts between rail operators and the government allow the government to direct how disputes are handled. Rail operators are not free to agree terms and conditions with their employees without the involvement of the Transport Secretary. Mark Harper so far, has not taken the necessary steps to start this process.

It is interesting that in every part of the rail network where the Department of Transport is not involved, The RMT have agreed deals. For example:

* Eurostar - Mitie security: 10% (29% for lowest paid)

* Scotrail: 7-9%

* Transport for Wales: 6.6%-9.5%

* Merseyrail: 7%

* MTR Crossrail: 8.2%

* Docklands Light Railway: 9.25%

Another key sticking point in these negotiations are the other conditions aligned to the pay offers.

Network Rail proposed a 50 per cent cut to maintenance while the Rail Delivery Group proposed driver-only trains and the closure of all ticket offices.

The RMT say this will lead to a less safe and accessible railway, where there is a real risk that there would be half as many checks and a reduction in track safety. The closure of all ticket offices will affect elderly and disabled passengers, who rely on this vital service and driver only trains will increase the lack of safety for passengers too. These concerns have not just been highlighted by the unions, but also by other passenger supporting organisations.

People may see the unions taking action like this, as an ‘inconvenience’ or ‘they are being greedy’ but it is worth highlighting that no one within the trade union movement wants to take this action, it is a last resort.

It is a last resort when those in positions of power, either within the relevant employers or the government, are not listening and ignoring the right to pay workers fairly, protect our services for the benefit and safety for all those that use them and are not solely for the benefit of the profit makers.

Brian McDaid

Skipton and Ripon Labour Party