The militant RMT union faced fury on Tuesday after announcing rail strikes at Christmas — having previously pledged this would not happen to avoid inflicting travel misery across the country.
Train users in London reacted angrily to the proposed walkouts on Network Rail from 6pm on December 24 until 6am on December 27, which will leave many people’s plans to visit family and friends in tatters. They condemned the series of strikes over the festive season for “ruining Christmas”, “ruining livelihoods” and for making it harder for key workers, including nurses, to get to work.
It comes on top of a series of already announced strikes, starting next Tuesday. Business chiefs and London MPs also condemned the walkouts which will wreak havoc with the festive party season before Christmas and with the start of the traditional Boxing Day sales afterwards in a double whammy blow to the West End economy.
Restaurants say they have already been hit with a wave of cancellations of Christmas events, while retailers are furious that shoppers may not be able to reach their stores on 26th December.
The latest wave of rail strikes comes as nurses, civil servants, bus drivers and postal workers are also set to walk out in the run-up to Christmas in what threatens to become a “Winter of Discontent”.
While there is sympathy for workers struggling with the cost-of-living crisis and sky-high inflation, there were signs that the RMT’s targeting of Christmas may be undermining support for the industrial action.
Joanne Kilby, 28, a physiotherapist, said: “They are ruining Christmas. I need to travel back to my parents up north on Christmas Eve. It’s so selfish.
“There was some sympathy but the goodwill from the public is disappearing.”
Dinah Trent, 48, who works in a hospital, said: “How are nurses supposed to get to work?” while IT worker David Hodge, 44, said: “This is playing havoc with people’s plans.”
The action has already played havoc with the Christmas party season, with bar worker Pavel Wojcik, 24, warning: “We have already had cancellations over Christmas because of the strike, it makes us worried for our jobs.”
Chloe McCall, 23, who works in retail, added: “Our Christmas party has been called off because of them (strikes). Also, I need to visit relatives over Christmas and it’s going to be very difficult.”
And Conrad Jones, 52, who works in finance said: “Strikes will ruin business for shops, restaurants bars and theatres that depend on this time of year. The walkouts are ruining livelihoods.”
The Christmas strikes are set to take place despite RMT general secretary Mick Lynch saying a fornight ago that the industrial action had been “deliberately” planned to avoiding hitting this period when many people use the trains to visit family and friends.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “We’ve deliberately left the Christmas period strike free.”
Mr Lynch claimed today that the strikes around Christmas were targeted at engineering work by Network Rail - but admitted they would also affect passengers as there would be more of a “wind down” of services.
Pressed on why the RMT was no longer promising strike-free days around Christmas, he told the BBC: “It’s a change of plan because the companies have changed their plans.
“They have decided that on December 15 that they will impose the changes to our members in the engineering function at Network Rail, that no matter what happens they will proceed with the changes that we have been attempting to negotiate with them, without our consent.”
But Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, accused the RMT of “playing fast and loose with people’s Christmas plans and the new strike dates announced deliberately target vital engineering work designed to improve the railway”.
London minister Paul Scully said: “They (the unions) are ruining people’s Christmas and businesses in the lead-up to Christmas.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Sadiq Khan said: "Nobody wants to see strike action, particularly at Christmas when people are planning to travel to spend time with loved ones or simply come to enjoy our capital. At the heart of this dispute is a decade of Government failure on public transport.
“For five months, multiple ministers have sat back and allowed this chaos to continue. It is the Government that sets the parameters for these talks, and it is the Government that holds the keys to unlocking this dispute. It’s time for ministers to get serious and put an end to this disruption through negotiation.”
Nickie Aiken, Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, accused the RMT of using the holiday plans of hundreds of thousands of people as a “bargaining chip” in their talks with bosses.
The Rail Delivery Group has offered a backdated four per cent pay rise for 2022 with the same again next year and guarantee of no compulsory redundancies before April 2024.
But the RMT swiftly announced it would put the latest offer to its NR members, with a recommendation to reject.
Strikes on 14 train companies would go ahead next week although talks were being held with rail chiefs today, Tuesday.
Muniya Barua, deputy chief executive at BusinessLDN, said: “With the clock ticking down, we’d urge both sides to continue talks today to secure a deal to avert these strikes which will inflict misery on businesses and the travelling public over the festive season.
“All sides need to work together to reach an agreement so businesses, Londoners and visitors can make the most of everything the capital has to offer this winter. After several disrupted Christmases in a row, Londoners and businesses deserve much better.”
The industrial action on December 13-14 and 16-17, coupled with an overtime ban over Christmas, risk a month of disruption on the network, with more walkouts planned on January 3, 4, 6 and 7.
Rail sources said the RMT strikes next week had been deliberately chosen to cause “maximum disruption to passengers” over an entire week.
This is because services will start to reduce on the Monday and will take time to resume on the Sunday.
The Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) announced it was calling off strikes planned on Network Rail for December and is putting an offer to its members, but that walkouts were still going ahead on train companies.