The government is “simply not in a position to pay inflation pay rises”, the transport secretary has told Sky News before a meeting with the boss of the sector’s biggest union tomorrow.
Mark Harper told The Take with Sophy Ridge that he understands why “people facing these cost-of-living pressures want more pay”, but said if ministers were to grant this wish, “the danger is that we would embed inflation”.
Rail unions must “understand” the importance of getting inflation down to get the economy back on track, he said.
Mr Harper was speaking before a meeting with Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT union, on Thursday.
This week Mr Lynch insisted he’s “not the Grinch” as he announced four 48-hour strikes over Christmas and New Year.
Mr Lynch said on Tuesday that there had been no improved offer on jobs, pay and conditions, so more walkouts would go ahead.
About 40,000 staff from Network Rail and 14 train companies are set to strike on 13, 14, 16 and 17 December and 3, 4, 6 and 7 January.
It means disruption for travellers, workers and shoppers in the run-up to Christmas and for people returning home after the festive break.
There could also be problems on other days because the RMT said an overtime ban would run from 18 December to 2 January.
The transport secretary warned Sky News that the upcoming strikes are going to be “really disruptive” and will have “a very significant cost”.
But he said he will not negotiate with Mr Lynch over the fresh round of strikes in tomorrow’s meeting.
“I would urge them to call off the strikes, get back round the table with the employers, try and hammer out some of those reforms that are necessary, and which deliver the savings that then can then help pay for the pay rises for his members and deliver a better service,” Mr Harper said.
Asked if it is fair for rail workers to expect their wages to match inflation, he said the most important issue for the whole country is that “we get inflation under control”.
Embedding inflation is not in anyone’s interest, he said.
“What is in people’s interest is that we get inflation driven out of the system so that it comes back down to a lower level, we see interest rates then falling – that is how we get a long-term sustainable position.”
Mr Harper added that he wants “the dispute to be settled” through “a sensible conversation” tomorrow, adding: “We absolutely do not want this to go on to New Year.”
The Christmas action will be the latest in a series of rail strikes that began in June and follows RMT members last week voting to continue striking for another six months.
Train drivers who belong to the Aslef union are staging a separate strike this Saturday, hitting services run by 11 operators, including Great Western and Southeastern.