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Last Updated: Friday, 25 June 2004, 08:59 GMT 09:59 UK
Keeping the rail dispute on track
Tom Symonds
Tom Symonds
BBC transport correspondent

Brighton signal box being pulled down in 1985
National Rail says the RMT polled "members" at non-existent sites
It was the classic way to resolve a dispute. Push your opponent as far as possible, then hand over the smallest concession you can, to give the other side a reason to capitulate.

Network Rail's first standoff with the powerful RMT rail union looked likely to result in a national rail strike that would have crippled trains around the country. But the company's Chief Executive John Armitt had an important advantage.

The RMT had called a strike ballot, as required by law. It had also sent a list of those members polled to Network Rail, again as required by law. But, crucially, the list wasn't up to date.

Network Rail says it claimed 12 members had been working at Brighton signal box. But Brighton signal box was pulled down in the 1980s. Similar discrepancies were alleged in the union's records for members working at Newcastle, Leeds and Garston signal boxes, all three of which are no longer in service. Garston was burnt down by vandals two years ago.

Network Rail applied for an injunction on the basis that the strike action flouted union laws. But 24 hours before the court hearing, John Armitt called his opponent, union leader Bob Crow and asked him to come to Network Rail's Euston headquarters.

Face to face he made the RMT an offer which led to the dispute being resolved.

Pensions

The main argument had been over pensions for Network Rail staff. The company's employees currently enjoy the railway's standard 'final salary' pension. They are paid a sum on retirement based on what they earn when leaving the job.

Garston signal box burning down
Garston signal box was destroyed two years ago

Network Rail wanted to scrap this scheme for anyone it employed after April this year. The union was furious - the replacement pension scheme being offered by the company it believed to be inferior.

John Armitt offered a compromise. New employees would he able to change to the old scheme once they'd served 5 years with the company.

Sources close to the negotiations describe it as an 'elegant compromise'. Network Rail wouldn't have to pay out more in pensions for at least 5 years - and the deal would encourage skilled workers to remain with the company.

Within a few hours of receiving the offer the RMT's bullish leader Bob Crow had called off the strike. But why was he so keen to give in.

Unresolved

The truth is that both sides knew the RMT was likely to lose the court confrontation over the strike ballot. Mr Crow would then have been obliged to hold a new ballot - making a deal even more difficult.

The planned strike on the London Underground will go ahead though. The separate dispute over pay and working hours remains unresolved.

Tube workers have been offered a pay increase of 6.5% over two years - and a cut in the working week from 37.5 hours to 35.

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone said the strike was "inexplicable". He's put pressure on the RMT to find a way to call it off.

But swift diplomacy between Network Rail and the RMT appears to have headed off the first national rail strike since the damaging signal workers dispute of the 90s. And Network Rail hopes this deal will prevent strikes on the railways for some time to come.



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