12 May 2006

The number of rail union members who turned out for the Lobby of Parliament on Tuesday meant that a planned rally had to be divided into two Committee Rooms at the Palace of Westminster. The speakers at the rally – Francis O’Grady (TUC), Keith Norman (ASLEF), Bob Crow (RMT), Gerry Doherty (TSSA) and John Wall (Amicus) – scurried from room to room to get the pensions message over.


Keith Norman condemned the government for failing to offer any help in solving the burning issue of pensions in the rail industry. ‘The rail unions jointly went to the Department for Transport to stress the urgency of the situation, to talk about the probability of industrial action and to urge the government to broker peace talks between the national unions and representatives of the franchised companies. They failed to do this.


‘They told us to go and talk to the companies individually – all 100 plus! And at the same time the minister says he hopes we can all come to an agreement.


‘How can we come to an agreement if we have no one to talk to? The job of government is to arrange a forum for national talks – and it has refused to move a muscle.


‘This is a decision it will regret.’


The unions were contemptuous of the government excuse that it could do nothing because since privatisation the individual companies were independent and out of its control. Gerry Doherty pointed out that the government now hands out £4 billion to train companies every year. ‘How can anyone control a purse of £4 billion and not have any influence?’ he demanded.


‘When our industry was nationalised the taxpayer subsidised the industry by £1 billion. Since privatisation the subsidies have gone to £4 billion,’ he added. ‘Can you imagine the outcry in the media if those figures were the other way round and nationalisation was shown to cost four times as much as privatisation?’


There seems little chance that industrial action over the issue will be averted. The RMT and TSSA announced at the lobby that they will commence ballots within all companies before the end of May. ASLEF is examining all responses carefully and will make decisions company by company. Keith Norman explains:


‘Some companies have send us responses which the executive committee finds acceptable. These are replies which give agreement to the first three points and give a commitment to enter serious discussion on the final point.


‘This group – which includes a considerable proportion of the passenger train operators – has offered agreement in principle to talk about a single scheme, but they say they cannot give a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because the terms need to be ironed out in discussions with the other train operators. Others have said that if the government begins an initiative to re-form one single pension fund, they will sit down and discuss it.’


So the resolution to this problem comes round in a full circle: everyone agrees that the government needs to be active on the issues.


Everyone, that is, except the government.

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