UK faces threat of crippling strikes

Britain today faced the threat of wider industrial action while a senior Labour MP said slow investment in transport has left the country with the worst railways in Europe.

Britain today faced the threat of wider industrial action while a senior Labour MP said slow investment in transport has left the country with the worst railways in Europe.

Foreign Office minister Peter Hain said the railways and buses have suffered from decades of underinvestment and support has started too late.

His comments came as postal workers became the latest group to threaten strike action.

Such a move would add to the country’s growing union militancy, with talks continuing today to try and settle the ongoing rail disputes.

Mr Hain said Labour should have been more radical earlier on.

He said: ‘‘We have the worst railways in Europe. We started transport investment far too late. It is an intractable problem.’’

Mr Hain later said that the policy being pursued now by Transport Secretary Stephen Byers was ‘‘absolutely right’’.

‘‘The Government’s 10-year transport investment programme will do the job.’’

Yesterday Tony Blair, at Prime Minister’s questions, acknowledged Labour should have known from the moment they come to power that privatisation could not work but added: ‘‘We believed it was better at least to give it a chance to work because of the upheaval that would be caused once you changed the system, as we are now having to do.’’

But union tensions are increasing and today the Communication Workers Union is preparing to ballot postal workers for industrial action over pay that could severely disrupt mail deliveries.

The union wants a 5% increase compared to a current offer of 2% and will send out ballot papers later this month.

Negotiations have been under way for three months, but union deputy general secretary John Keggie has accused postal group Consignia of treating workers unfairly and having a ‘‘head in the sand’’ attitude.

He added: ‘‘Take home pay for most postal workers is less than £150 per week and is, quite frankly, disgraceful.

‘‘Consignia is striving to be a modern and forward-thinking company. It has a hell of a long way to go but must start by treating its workforce fairly.’’

Consignia said it was ‘‘bitterly disappointed’’ at the union’s decision to ballot for industrial action.

Managing director for service delivery Mick Linsell said the company was planning to involve an Acas-appointed mediator in the negotiations.

In other talks, leaders of the train drivers’ union Aslef were to continue negotiations with ScotRail today in a bid to resolve their current dispute.

In just one of the rail disputes that are ongoing in the country, ScotRail has been forced to cut services by a quarter because drivers are refusing to work rest days.

The Rail Maritime and Transport Union has called for a fresh 48-hour strike on South West Trains for January 24-25 and Arriva Trains Northern will faces stoppages on the same days plus February 5-6.

A rail passengers’ group is planning a day of protest on March 1, urging the public to boycott trains in a show of ‘‘people power’’.

In the manufacturing industry, the Transport and General Workers Union will again today seek assurances about the future prospects of more than 1,000 tyre workers at the Goodyear plant in Wolverhampton.

Hundreds of jobs are being cut at the factory and the union wants a commitment that future employment levels will be maintained. It has not ruled out industrial action if members are not given those assurances.

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