Threat of train strikes at Christmas as union plots walkouts until next election

The threat of new rail strikes is looming over Christmas as union bosses consider extending walkouts until the next general election in the hope they can strike a deal with a Labour government.

A ballot by train drivers’ union Aslef on extending its six-month mandate for industrial action is ongoing, with the results due back on Friday, the day before a series of rolling one-day walkouts kicks off.

The union is understood to be confident of a vote in favour of continuing with strikes beyond the current January mandate, as part of an 18-month dispute dispute with rail operators, represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).

i understands union officials are braced for the RDG to not improve its offer that was rejected in spring, and view a Labour general election victory as the best chance of a breakthrough.

It raises the prospect of strikes grinding on into next year, with speculation Rishi Sunak is likely to call a general election either in May or October. Recent polling has shown Labour is on course to win a sizeable majority, with a YouGov poll last week giving Sir Keir Starmer’s party a 19-point lead.

Aslef blames the Government for having “interfered” in a deal with operators to end the bitter dispute, which trade body UK Hospitality says has cost the sector £4bn.

A union source told i: “We think we’ll get a much better offer under a Labour government. So we’ve just got to keep everything alive until there’s a Labour government, which could be in May, but might not be until October.”

From Saturday, Aslef workers across 16 train companies will strike on different days until Friday 8 December, in a blow to businesses gearing up for the busiest time of the year.

Members of the Aslef union on a picket line at Victoria Station in London. Rail passengers face fresh travel chaos on Friday because of another strike by drivers in the long-running dispute over pay, which will cripple services across the country. Picture date: Friday September 1, 2023. PA Photo. The 24-hour walkout by members of Aslef will severely affect timetables, with trains starting later and finishing earlier than usual, with some areas having no trains all day. The dispute started over a year ago and remains deadlocked, with no talks planned and no sign of a breakthrough. See PA story INDUSTRY Strikes. Photo credit should read: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
Members of Aslef on a picket line at Victoria station in London during earlier strike action (Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA)

Additionally, all members will refuse to work any overtime from 1 December to 9 December.

Aslef’s executive committee is also meeting next week, when a decision could be taken on whether to call more strikes over Christmas, which they must give 14 days notice of. The earliest date a new strike could be called would be 18 December.

In April, the union rejected what it said was a “risible” offer from the RDG of a 4 per cent pay rise for 2022 and 2023, in what would be a first salary increase since 2019.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said the offer would raise the average annual pay of a train driver from £60,000 to £65,000 for a four-day week, and called on Aslef to put the offer to its members.

The union says members had given a “clear rejection” of the offer by voting to continue with its strike mandate and that no talks had been held with the RDG since April, with no contact with ministers since January.

Aslef has held 14 one-day walkouts so far, causing huge disruption to passengers and rail companies.

In a change of tactics, the union’s latest round of action will see drivers from different companies walk out on separate days from Saturday, with services cancelled.

The union said the new walkouts would “ratchet up the pressure” on train companies and the Government.

UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls called for talks to end the latest bout of strikes, which could cost the sector £500m, with a total £4bn in lost sales from the walkouts

She said: “This new set of strikes will hit hospitality businesses at the start of one of the busiest trading times of the year – the festive period.

“Not only will businesses be disrupted but staff will be prevented from working and families’ Christmas plans will be interrupted.

“I would urge all parties to get back round the table to resume negotiations and work urgently to reach a solution that avoids devastating strikes.”

Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, said: “We are determined to win this dispute, and get a significant pay rise for train drivers who have not had an increase since 2019 while the cost of living, in that time, has soared.

“Mr Harper, who has gone missing in action during this dispute, says we should put the offer to our members. What the minister apparently fails to understand is that, since the RDG’s risible offer in April, we have received overwhelming mandates, on enormous turnouts, for more industrial action.”

In a separate dispute, RMT members voted in October for a new six-month strike mandate, meaning the threat of further action over Christmas and into spring.

However, workers have been voting on a deal that could pause strike action until at least the end of April, after operators put forward an offer including a backdated pay rise of 5 per cent for 2022 and job security guarantees.

A spokesperson for Rail Delivery Group said: “We remain open to dialogue with the Aslef leadership to resolve this dispute, so that our customers can enjoy our services without the threat of industrial action. In the meantime, the fair and affordable offer that we’ve made, which would take driver salaries from an average of £60k to £65k for a four-day week, remains on the table.

“Instead of staging yet more damaging strike action and holding back sensible changes that would improve reliability for our customers, we urge Aslef to work with us to find a way through this dispute.”