Union News (17 September 2023)

Welcome to Union News your weekly podcast from the labour and trade union movement in the UK. In this edition: Railway Ticket Office Closures: Union Leader Slams ‘Sham’ Consultation; Scottish Water Workers Warn of Strikes Over Pay and CEO’s Soaring Salary; Councils Under Fire as Workers Reject ‘Pathetic’ Pay Offer; and finally, Train Drivers Announce Strikes During Tory Conference Over Long-Standing Pay Dispute. Writing is by Pat Harrington and music is by Tim Bragg.

Railway Ticket Office Closures: Union Leader Slams ‘Sham’ Consultation

Mick Lynch, the leader of the RMT union, has strongly criticized the consultation on the closure of railway ticket offices in England, labeling it as a “sham.” He expressed concerns that shutting down most of these offices would make the railway system unattractive for evening travel. Lynch argued that the government’s claim of redeploying ticket office staff was unrealistic and accused them of trying to push through job cuts.

Disability campaigners highlighted the inaccessibility of the consultation for disabled and vulnerable travelers and warned that the proposed staffing levels could threaten their right to travel. The consultation, which closed on September 1 after extensions due to protests, received over 680,000 responses. Transport Focus and London TravelWatch are currently reviewing the responses, and they can refer the decision to the transport secretary if public objections are upheld.

Lynch criticized the government for aiming to save £95 million by cutting 2,800 jobs and emphasized the importance of ticket offices as community centers in many towns and villages. He called for a proposal to create an accessible and friendly railway for all travelers.

Disability advocates pointed out issues with accessibility in the consultation process, including difficulties for those with visual and hearing impairments. They also raised concerns about the lack of comprehensive assessments for disabled travelers and the unavailability of details in the proposals.

The proposals would leave many stations unstaffed for extended periods, relying on weekly visits from mobile teams, which disability advocates argued would be impractical for disabled individuals.

Train operators defended the proposals, stating that the majority of customers now use online and contactless payment methods rather than ticket offices. However, there were questions about whether the government or train operators initiated these changes.

Asked twice if the proposals came from the government or train operators, Simon Moorhead’ the chief information officer of the industry body the Rail Delivery Group. did not directly answer but said there was “consensus that there is need for reform”, adding: “We’re always asked to manage costs to the industry tightly.”

In a separate debate, MPs, including some from the Conservative party, urged ministers to reconsider the closure program, with many expressing strong opposition to the plans.

Scottish Water Workers Warn of Strikes Over Pay and CEO’s Soaring Salary

Katy Clark, an MSP with socialist leanings, has issued a warning to the Scottish government regarding Scottish Water workers’ concerns. She has called upon Cabinet Secretary Mairi McAllan to step in as workers have rejected Scottish Water’s controversial pay and grading proposals. Unite, Unison, and GMB unions have conducted strike ballots, receiving strong support for potential strike action unless the situation changes. These unions argue that Scottish Water has violated fair-work principles by not properly consulting with employees regarding changes that could negatively affect the lowest-paid workers while executive pay increases significantly. They highlight the substantial salary of Scottish Water’s CEO, Alex Plant, which exceeds that of his predecessor by more than 20%. Stephen Deans from Unite accused management of trying to implement new pay structures while increasing the CEO’s pay, contradicting the Scottish government’s public-sector pay policy. Clark emphasized the importance of the government listening to Scottish Water workers and ensuring adherence to fair-work principles, protecting the lowest-paid staff and addressing the issue of unfair executive pay raises. The Scottish government has been contacted for comment.

Councils Under Fire as Workers Reject ‘Pathetic’ Pay Offer

Employees represented by Unite, GMB, and Unison have expressed their dissatisfaction with the latest pay proposal put forth by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), stating that it would only equate to £1,929 for an average worker by January 2024. Strike ballots are already underway in various Scottish local government sectors, and unions have warned of potential strike action if improvements are not made. GMB Scotland’s Keir Greenaway criticized the offer as inadequate compared to England’s and urged Scottish government intervention to protect the wages of essential workers. Unite Scotland’s Eddie Cassidy described the offer as a pay cut, setting a deadline for a better proposal from Cosla, and threatened extended strikes if necessary. Cosla’s Katie Hagmann emphasized their willingness to engage positively with trade unions, as strike action is undesirable for all parties.

and finally, Train Drivers Announce Strikes During Tory Conference Over Long-Standing Pay Dispute

Train drivers represented by the union Aslef have declared a series of strikes in their ongoing battle for improved pay, affecting services at 16 private rail companies. The strikes are scheduled for Saturday, September 30 (the day before the Tory conference) and Wednesday, October 4 (the final day of the event). In addition to these strikes, an overtime ban will be in effect across the UK rail network from Friday, September 29, to Friday, October 5. Aslef’s General Secretary, Mick Whelan, criticized rail operators for proposing pay terms they knew would be rejected. Whelan called on Transport Secretary Mark Harper and Transport Minister Huw Merriman to engage in negotiations to end the dispute, citing the lack of a pay raise for train drivers since 2019 despite rising living costs. Aslef has reached agreements with 14 operators outside of Westminster’s control in the past year, but Whelan emphasized that this dispute pertains to England and has been influenced by the Tory government. In response, the Rail Delivery Group emphasized the linkage between pay increases and ‘necessary’ service ‘enhancements’. The Department for Transport obstinately reiterated its commitment to what it termed ‘workplace reforms’ despite the strikes.

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