The head of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) has called on Grant Shapps to “tone down the rhetoric and get on with his job” in order to settle the bitter dispute over jobs, pay and conditions.
Train services have been crippled again on Saturday as thousands of RMT members stage the third 24-hour strike this week.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch joined workers on a picket line outside Euston Station in central London on Saturday morning.
Strikers held up RMT banners and draped flags over the barrier which read: “Defend Rail Jobs Pay Conditions”, while the occasional driver would honk their vehicle’s horn as they drove past.
Speaking to the PA news agency, Mr Lynch called on the Transport Secretary to engage in “constructive” talks with the unions amid little sign of a breakthrough in the deadlocked row.
It comes after Mr Shapps said the union’s claims that he was “wrecking” negotiations by refusing to allow Network Rail to withdraw redundancy threats was a “total lie”.
Mr Lynch hit back on Saturday, saying: “We haven’t made any false claims.
“The railway last week was down by 80%, that has an effect that we don’t particularly want to deploy and they are losing revenue commercially and that hurts them and it hurts our people because they’ve lost their wages.
“We don’t want that.
“So if Grant Shapps wants to be constructive that’s what he can do,” he said.
“He needs to tone down the rhetoric and get on with his job which is to settle this dispute.”
Mr Lynch went on to say those in power “have never worked on the tools” and were brought up on a diet of “Latin and Greek”.
He said: “They’re not using the system that they want and they’ve never worked in this type of work.
“Many of them have never run a business but they’ve also never worked on the tools.
“As my mother would say, they’ve never done a hands turn.
“It’s quite odd the people who are running this country are brought up on a diet of Latin and Greek and our members are brought up on a diet of getting up at ungodly times to run the transport system.”
Mr Lynch said this causes a “disconnect”, adding: “If we had people who were used to doing work we might get a better deal out of them.”
But he said the union will talk to anyone available to resolve the dispute.
“It’s not our choice,” he added.
Mr Lynch confirmed that RMT were “not ruling out strikes” but added they have not put any dates down for further action.
“We’re going to review with our national executive next week who have been all the way the country this week on the picket line so we’re all going to get together the leadership of the union and see where we are,” he said.
“We are not going to name dates immediately and we’re going to continue working constructively with the companies to strike a deal but that is a really steep challenge at the moment because of the agenda they’ve got and the effects they want on our members.”
He added any strike action needs to be “effective”, saying: “We’re not just pretending.
“It’s got to be a coherent and effective strike action because we don’t want to waste our members energy on something that doesn’t work.”
Asked if the rail strikes had been successful so far, Mr Lynch said: “Things have gone really well for us because our members have rallied to the call.
He said workers are “very determined” to get a settlement, before highlighting how the union’s mandate to strike has been essential for negotiating “as equals”.
On whether people working from home during the strikes means there has been less disruption and therefore has hampered the action’s impact, Mr Lynch said: “People make preparations and adapt.
“I’ve got no problem with that.
“I’m happy that people can make adaptations and they can work from home.”
But he said cities and towns “need to come back” following Covid and need to be “vibrant and bustling”.
He said the country “needs our railways” as an essential part to sustaining these urban economies.
But he also acknowledged there are “certainly going to be changes which the railways will adapt to”.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The Transport Secretary has consistently urged union representatives to get back around the negotiating table and agree a deal to bring our rail industry into the 21st century. Strikes should always be the last resort, not the first, so it is hugely disappointing and premature that the RMT went ahead with industrial action, which caused significant upheaval to the lives of those they claim to stand up for.
“The Government earmarked £16 billion to keep our railways running throughout the pandemic while ensuring not a single worker lost their job but the network remains on life support, with passenger numbers 25% down and anything that drives away even more of them risks killing services and jobs. Train travel for millions more people is now a choice, not a necessity and these strikes simply stop our more customers choosing rail, potentially never to return.
“We urge the RMT not to carry out any further action so we can find a solution that delivers for workers, passengers and taxpayers alike.”