Ministers have called on Britain’s biggest rail union to be “altruistic” and suspend strike action over Christmas and new year amid warnings that it will cost the economy more than £1.7 billion.
The RMT union is planning eight days of strikes before Christmas and after the new year as part of the longest and most damaging period of industrial action since the 1980s.
The strikes will lead to widespread disruption on what are traditionally some of the busiest days for pubs, restaurants and shops.
Internal government estimates suggest that the rail industry alone will lose up to £260 million because of the strikes. The hospitality industry has warned that industrial action will cost it £1.5 billion in lost sales.
Huw Merriman, the rail minister, said yesterday that the strikes could “break” businesses that have already endured two years of disastrous festive periods because of the coronavirus pandemic. He urged the RMT to show the “spirit of compromise” and reach a deal so that businesses can recover “after the terrible time they have had”.
He is due to meet Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, and rail employers today in an attempt to broker a compromise.
Britain is facing strike action every day in the run-up to Christmas, with rail workers, including Eurostar contractors, and nurses, ambulance staff, teachers and driving examiners preparing to take industrial action. More than 40,000 members of the RMT will hold four 48-hour strikes over the festive period in a long-running dispute over pay, job security and working conditions.
The railways will shut down on December 13, 14, 16 and 17, although passengers are being warned of significant disruption for the whole week. There will also be a ban on overtime from December 18 to January 2 and further walkouts on January 3, 4, 6 and 7, which will, in effect, close the railway for a further week.
Merriman told the Commons: “December for many companies is their time, it’s make or break time, if they don’t get a December in they may not see January.
“We all have to think of this in an altruistic manner and see what more we can do. We will certainly do that on our side of the fence. We need the trade unions, who ultimately are the ones who can call the strike off or action it, we need them to take the strikes down.”
A government source said: “This significant disruption to the public is not inevitable. With pubs, bars and restaurants warning it could lose them billions, we want to avoid a triple whammy on businesses and families after two Christmases of Covid upheaval. Pay offers must be fair to public sector workers and affordable for taxpayers.”
The NHS is facing the prospect of co-ordinated strikes from several unions. Andy Prendergast, national secretary of the GMB union, said that walkouts were a “cry for help” as he urged ministers to listen to workers over pay. He told Sky News: “We will be talking to the other unions, we know that the nurses have got their first ballot in over 100 years, we know that our colleagues in Unite, in Unison are delivering ballots so we will be looking to make sure this has the maximum impact.”
The GMB announced that 10,000 of its ambulance members had backed strike action, while Unite members, including paramedics and ambulance staff, had done the same. The Royal College of Nursing has two days of industrial action planned this month.
Rishi Sunak said that strike action was “deeply regrettable”, adding: “I know things are difficult for people right now economically but when it comes to pay settlements they have to be fair, for workers [and] taxpayers. People need to keep talking and find a way through.”
The RMT strike dates will disproportionately hit the hospitality sector on the busiest week of the year for office Christmas parties. UKHospitality, the industry trade body, has said that the strikes will cost £1.5 billion. The figure is comparable to the losses last year because of the Omicron coronavirus variant. Chris Whitty, England’s most senior doctor, had urged people to “think carefully before you go” to celebrations.
“The RMT are trying to impose their own lockdown,” a rail source said. “This is the first year since 2019 with no restrictions and they are hitting a week that is so vital to the hospitality sector.”
Figures from the Office of Rail and Road regulator showed that taxpayers injected £13.3 billion to keep the railways running in the year to March, against £17.6 billion in the previous year.
Mark Harper, the transport secretary, said yesterday he was trying to encourage” a deal between the rail industry and the unions. He wrote to Lynch this week proposing “better information-sharing” between the government, unions and rail employers.
Rail bosses have said that unless the pre-Christmas strike action is called off by the start of next week it will be too late to run a full timetable. “We have a matter of days,” a source said. “We can’t be in a situation like last time with the strikes called off at the eleventh-hour preventing us running services.”