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Major unions call on ministers to ‘get round the table’ ahead of rail strikes

Major unions call on ministers to ‘get round the table’ ahead of rail strikes
Exclusive: General secretaries of 14 organisations urge minister to stop ‘attempts to divide workers’

Britain’s major trade unions are collectively urging the government to “get round” the negotiating table to try to find a resolution, 24 hours ahead of the biggest strike action on the rail network for decades.

In a letter to Grant Shapps, the general secretaries of 14 unions – which between them represent millions of workers, including civil servants, shopworkers, teachers and NHS staff – have warned that ministers must stop their “attempts to divide workers”.

The general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Frances O’Grady, who is one of the signatories of the letter, also accused the government of “fanning the flames” of the dispute, and insisted ministers had the power to help find a settlement.

It comes after Mr Shapps, the transport secretary, warned the country’s biggest rail union that the disruption would be a “huge act of self-harm” for the industry, and claimed that the unions had been “gunning” for action that would “punish millions of innocent people”.

Mr Shapps also said that calls by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) for ministers to intervene in talks over workers’ conditions were a “stunt”, adding that only the union and the employer would be able to settle the dispute.

Without an 11th-hour resolution, members of the RMT working for Network Rail and for 13 train operators will walk out this week, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. They will be joined on the first day of action by workers on the London Underground.

In the letter to Mr Shapps, the general secretaries of 14 trade unions, including the National Education Union (NEU), Unison, Unite, GMB, and the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), said: “The trade union movement will never accept attempts to divide workers from one another.

“With household bills and prices skyrocketing, of course workers will seek to defend jobs, pay and conditions. The right to withdraw your labour is a fundamental British liberty.”

Calling on the government to intervene, they added: “Our rail unions are seeking a negotiated settlement to this dispute, and we urge you to get round the table with unions and employers to help deliver a fair resolution.”

Ms O’Grady also claimed that ministers are “desperate to pitch worker against worker” in the bitter dispute.

In recent days, individual cabinet ministers, along with the Conservative Party, have attempted to brand the industrial action “Labour’s strikes” in social media posts, claiming the action will “prevent doctors, nurses and patients getting to hospital”.

But Ms O’Grady said: “Rather than fanning the flames of this dispute, the government should be working in good faith to find a negotiated settlement. They have the power to do this.”

Speaking on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, however, Mr Shapps said: “The trade unions know that only the trade union and the employer can settle this. I will not cut across that.”

Grant Shapps says RMT union are ‘gunning’ for strikes

He claimed: “This is a stunt at the 11th hour by the union, suddenly coming forward and saying ‘We need to negotiate with the government now,’ even though this last month they told me they wouldn’t be seen dead negotiating with the government.”

The cabinet minister added: “I think it is a huge act of self-harm to go on strike at the moment. I don’t believe the workers are anywhere as militant as their unions, who are leading them up the garden path. They are gunning for this strike. It is completely unnecessary.”

But Tory MP Jake Berry, the chair of the influential Northern Research Group (NRG) of backbench Conservatives, urged the government and other parties to “get around the table” in order to prevent the “huge negative impact” of the planned strike action.

RMT union boss accuses Grant Shapps of ‘fabricating’ details over talks

He told Times Radio: “What’s the alternative? The only way this will be sorted out is by people sitting down with, I don’t know, cold beer and sandwiches. I don’t know if they still do that any more. But sitting down and sorting this out.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The unions know negotiations over pay and working practices don’t happen with the government – they happen with the employers of the people they represent.

“In this case, that’s Network Rail and the train operating companies, so even an hour spent talking to ministers would just be time they could be speaking to the people they really need to.

“Ministers remain extremely close to the issues on both sides of this dispute and the latest in the ongoing discussions taking place. We would once again urge the unions to prioritise talks and call off these unnecessary strikes.”

On Sunday, Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, insisted the union had no choice but to act given that the train operators had still not made a pay offer when talks were adjourned on Thursday.

“What else are we to do? Are we to plead? Are we to beg? We want to bargain for our futures. We want to negotiate,” he told Sky News.

He also suggested there would be more strikes if there was no settlement, and warned that unions representing other sectors across the country could ballot “because people can’t take it any more”.

“We’ve got people doing full-time jobs who are having to take state benefits and use food banks. That is a national disgrace,” he said.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, representing teachers, also told The Observer at the weekend that his union planned to ballot its members unless it recieved a pay offer much closer to the rate of inflation by Wednesday.