Transport minister has 'no idea' why rail workers are set to strike during COP26

Threats to cripple Scotland’s railway during COP26 are not “valid”, the transport secretary has said as the prospect of widespread strike action in Glasgow continues to grow.

The comments from Graeme Dey came as school cleaners and cooks in Glasgow voted in favour of strike action during the climate change conference which is set to begin on November 1.

A total of 1,500 Glasgow City Council staff in the refuse, cleansing, school janitorial and catering sectors could strike because of the ongoing pay dispute, with 96.9 per cent of returned ballots backing industrial action.

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The confirmation of this vote followed an announcement by the RMT union that ScotRail staff would strike for two weeks during COP26 due to an ongoing pay and terms and conditions dispute, crippling the network.

The Armadillo, Exhibition Halls and SSE Hydro, on the Scottish Event Campus alongside the River Clyde in Glasgow, which will host the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (Cop26) next month.

Mr Dey claimed he had “no idea” why the RMT union had decided to strike and claimed the vote to do so was “no longer valid”.

The minister called for RMT members to vote again on whether to take action over the pay dispute, claiming there is now a “very fair offer” for ScotRail staff.

ScotRail workers are set to strike from November 1-12 to coincide with the climate summit in Glasgow and members on the Serco-run Caledonian Sleeper service will also strike from October 31 to November 2 and from November 11-13.

A total of 84 per cent of more than 2,000 members backed more strikes.

Mr Dey argued that “circumstances have changed” since members voted for strike action, and said: “The premise of what was said yesterday is fundamentally wrong.

“That was about that took place before the offer was made many RMT members will have voted, believing there was no offer.”

However, RMT Scotland organiser Michael Hogg said it was a “lousy, rotten offer” of a 4.7 per cent increase which was not worthy of consideration because it required “members to sell hard-earned terms and conditions in order to get a pay rise”.

He added that all ScotRail services could end up being cancelled during the Cop26 conference as a result of the strikes.

The transport minister refused to reveal the details of the deal being offered by ScotRail, or whether it was a final offer, but said: “It was the best offer that can be made in the circumstances”.

He added: “Rail workers took part on a ballot on the basis that they had been left behind from their perspective because there had been no offer made.

“But that is not the case any more. An offer was made, has been made, it’s there and it’s a very fair offer and one that’s affordable for the railway.”

Asked whether the RMT members should have to vote again, Mr Dey said: “I think that’s fundamentally the right thing to do.

“The circumstances have changed, that mandate is no longer valid and therefore I would encourage them to either accept on behalf of their members or go back to the members and put the offer to them.”

Mr Dey defended ScotRail’s “extremely involved” engagement in discussions with unions but insisted it was not the Scottish Government’s role to resolve the dispute, despite being involved in the talks.

He said: “It’s not for the government to get back round the table.

“The trade unions and management were round the table over an extended period to arrive at the point they did with this offer being made and taken back to the memberships of three of the four unions.”

Following the interview, Mr Hogg told the programme: “What I say to Graeme Dey and to Transport Scotland is: let’s get round the table, let’s hold the serious, meaningful discussions we need in order to find a solution.

“I don’t see why members should be expected to actually sell hard-earned terms and conditions.”

ScotRail’s operations director David Simpson said: “We made a very positive offer to (the RMT) last weekend which – at that point – seemed to be acceptable.

“It offered a two-year deal, there was 4.7 per cent worth of pay rise in there which, given the current industry financial position, is very significant.”

Describing the prospect of more strikes as “very frustrating”, Mr Simpson added: “What we need to do now is work together to build by custom.

“Following Covid, we are still only at 50 per cent of previous customer levels. That leads to very significant financial challenges for the industry, and it’s against that backdrop that we were able to make the offer to the unions last week, which we hoped would resolve these issues, allow us to work together to deliver a great COP26, and then build the business back through the next few years.”

Scottish Conservative transport spokesman, Graham Simpson, called on the Scottish Government to take action.

"The SNP need to stop passing the buck and double down their efforts before time runs out.

“At every opportunity the SNP have distanced themselves from the ScotRail strikes, as passengers suffer months of disruption due to their inaction,” he said.

“Glasgow is about to take centre stage in a matter of weeks, and the SNP are still claiming they have ‘no idea’ why rail strikes are continuing.

“SNP Ministers must work with all parties to find a solution before these persisting strikes cast a shadow over the COP26 conference.”

Meanwhile, school cleaners and cooks are set to join refuse workers and railway workers on strike during the conference after GMB members rejected a £850-a-year increase for staff earning up to £25,000 a year from local authority umbrella body Cosla, with the union – along with Unison and Unite – all calling for a £2,000 pay rise.

Cosla said negotiations are ongoing.

GMB Glasgow organiser, Chris Mitchell, said: “Over the past 18 months throughout this awful pandemic, essential services across Scotland have been held together by an army of low paid workers.

“We were called key workers, even Covid heroes, but while politicians were happy to applaud us on Thursday nights, they’ve never put their hands in their pockets to pay us properly.

“The eyes of the world will be on Glasgow during Cop26, and our politicians now have a choice – will they fairly reward the frontline workers who got the country through the pandemic, or will they risk embarrassing the city and the country on an international stage?

“The message that our members have sent with this ballot result is clear. We are taking a stand for what we deserve, and we believe the people will stand with us.”

The call for industrial action comes after Glasgow City Council leader Susan Aitken was criticised for saying the city needs a “spruce up” before the Cop26 conference.

Her comments received a backlash from politicians and members of the public who claimed she was “out of touch” with the city.

A Cosla spokesman said: “We appreciate everything that Local Government workers have been doing, and continue to do, to support people and communities during the pandemic and as we begin to recover.

“We continue with ongoing, constructive negotiations.”

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