A minister slammed the militant RMT rail union on Tuesday for planning new strikes around Christmas.
RMT boss Mick Lynch announced a fresh strike over Christmas in a further blow to beleaguered travellers, on Monday evening, as he confirmed existing walkouts planned over the festive period would go ahead.
Mr Lynch said industrial action would take place from Christmas Eve to the morning of December 27th.
Strike action set to take place across four 48-hour periods on 13-14 and 16-17 December, as well as 3-4 and 6-7 January, will also go ahead.
Schools minister Nick Gibb told GB News on Tuesday morning: “It’s a very disappointing decision by the RMT.
“They were offered a very good pay deal by the employers, eight per cent over two year which is in line with the pay deals happening outside the public sector, of between four and six per cent.
“The unions really should call off this strike, it’s inconveniencing people up and down the country in the run-up to Christmas.
“It’s a very poor way of conducting negotiations.
“We would urge the unions to talk to the employers, to keep negotiating and not to hold the country to ransom, particularly in December as we get nearer Christmas.”
It is the most disruptive action announced by the union in a long-running dispute with rail bosses over pay and conditions amid the cost of living crisis. Passengers had already been warned to organise travel plans well in advance as around 5 per cent of the network will be shut for engineering works over Christmas.
Mr Lynch said he could understand how the travelling public would be “really disappointed and irritated” but that the current offer from Network Rail was “extremely detrimental” to his members.
“We remain available for talks in order to resolve these issues but we will not bow to pressure from the employers and the Government to the detriment of our members,” he said.
Reacting to the announcement, Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “It’s incredibly disappointing that, despite a new and improved deal offering job security and a fair pay rise, the RMT is not only continuing with upcoming industrial action but has called more strikes over Christmas.
“It’s especially disappointing given the TSSA union has described this new and improved deal as the ‘best we can achieve through negotiation’ and called off strikes.
“The Government has played its part by facilitating a fair and decent offer but, by instructing its members to reject it, the RMT has failed to play its part and our rail network now faces more harmful disruption rather than helpful discussion.”
Housing Secretary Michael Gove said the Government was “not spoiling for any kind of fight” with unions.
He told Sky News: “We are determined to ensure we can work constructively with employers and trade unions to work through what is a difficult time.”
Meanwhile, Mr Lynch also announced a new pay offer will be put to RMT members in a referendum with a recommendation to reject. The referendum will close at noon on Monday, December 12, he said.
A separate offer by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) - backdating a 4% pay rise for 2022 with the same again next year - has already been rejected by the RMT.
Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, said: “This response from the RMT to a significantly enhanced offer exposes their true priority - using the British public and Network Rail workers as pawns in a fight with the Government.
“What use is a referendum that means that strike disruption is inevitable? At best it’s the tactic the RMT played in October by calling the strikes off at the last minute and causing immense disruption to passengers and vital freight routes.
“They are 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.
“A significantly improved offer is now on the table that gives Network Rail workers job security, a decent pay rise and some other substantial benefits for employees and their families.”
Plans for additional rail strikes announced by the RMT are “dreadful”, former levelling-up secretary Simon Clarke said.
He tweeted: “This is dreadful by the RMT - ruining people’s Christmases with an 8% pay rise over two years on the table (and no compulsory redundancies). The railway received £16 billion - £600/household - in emergency funding during Covid and drivers’ median salary is £59k, staff’s is £44k.”
Downing Street on Monday urged Mr Lynch to reconsider the union’s strike plans for the festive period, saying there was “still time” to avoid industrial action.
But the RMT said the offer was conditional on accepting vast changes to working practices, huge job losses, driver-only operated (DOO) trains on all companies and the closure of ticket offices.
Strikes on 14 train companies will also go ahead next week although talks will be held with the Rail Delivery Group on Tuesday.
The Government is bracing for a winter of discontent with walkouts planned across the public sector. Nurses will strike at dozens of hospitals across the UK on December 15 and 20, with ambulance drivers and Border Force officials also set to stage industrial action over the festive period.
Staff working on the Eurostar will also strike on December 16, 18, 22 and 23.
In other developments, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) announced it was calling off strikes planned for December 13 and 17 and is putting an offer to its members.
The TSSA said Network Rail had offered a minimum pay uplift of a consolidated £1,750 or a 5 per cent increase (whichever is greater) to the annual base rates of pay effective from January 2022, and £250 to employees who earn £24,000 a year or less. Union members will vote in the coming weeks on whether to accept the offer.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is reportedly considering fresh legislation to curb the impact of industrial action by imposing a minimum level of service on strike days.