Railway workers for ScotRail and the overnight Caledonian Sleeper service will strike for two weeks during the COP26 conference, it was confirmed on Thursday, after members of the RMT union voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action.
The announcement from the RMT union came alongside a ballot confirming strike action from refuse workers in Glasgow should they not receive an improved pay offer next week.
It is a nightmare scenario for the First Minister who is set to welcome world leaders including US President Joe Biden who also confirmed his presence at COP26 today.
Opposition politicians labelled the strike action a “major embarrassment” and accused the SNP of allowing COP26 to fall into “sheer chaos”.
Following the ballot, ScotRail workers are set to strike from November 1 to 12 amid a dispute over pay and conditions, with an improved pay deal put on the table by the train operator earlier this week.
It is understood an offer of an initial 2.5 per cent backdated to April this year, with an additional 2.2 per cent promised in April 2022, had been made.
Transport Scotland, the Scottish Government’s transport agency, said it expects this pay deal to be put to a ballot of RMT members again ahead of COP26.
Such a strike would see the railway network crippled and unable to operate, similar to the near wipeout of ScotRail’s Sunday services connected to a different dispute between workers and the operator.
RMT members on the Caledonian Sleeper service, which is run by Serco, will also strike from October 31 to November 2 and from November 11 to 13.
The union’s general secretary Mick Lynch said: "Both ScotRail and the Caledonian Sleeper have had adequate time to come up with a fair pay settlement for Scotland's rail workers in advance of Cop26.
"Instead they have kicked the can down the road and left us with no option but to put this action on today.
"We know that these strikes will close rail services in Scotland but the blame for that lies with Abellio, Serco and the political leadership at Holyrood.
"It's time for all parties to take their rail workers seriously, get back round the table and give these staff at the front line of our green transport services the justice, respect and reward they deserve. "
The union had earlier announced the result of a ballot in which 84 per cent of more than 2,000 members backed more strikes over the ScotRail dispute.
Concurrently, members of GMB in Glasgow voted in favour of industrial action during the summit, with 96.9 per cent backing a strike if an improved pay offer for refuse workers is not forthcoming from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).
Chris Mitchell, of GMB, called on the Scottish Government and Cosla to take more action.
Speaking with members of Glasgow’s Bridgeton and Queenslie depots gathered behind him, he said: “We have a clear message to the Scottish Government and Cosla. We were called Covid heroes and essential workers.
“This is when low-paid workers take a stand against Cosla and say enough is enough, because these heroes here deserve a pay rise. Stand with us, not against us.”
Strike action threatened by rail engineers represented by the Unite union was put on hold after a new offer was put forward, with that ballot closing on October 25.
The union had said it would strike for several days during COP26.
Nicola Sturgeon faced criticism for “inaction” following the announcement by RMT, with the Scottish Conservatives saying it had caused “misery” for months.
The party’s transport spokesperson, Graham Simpson, said: “This is a major embarrassment for the SNP. Ministers should have resolved this dispute months ago.
“The SNP’s inaction has meant misery for passengers who have had to endure major disruption to services throughout this year.
“The eyes of the world are set to be on Glasgow in a matter of weeks. World leaders and delegates arriving in the city to take action to tackle the climate emergency will be greeted by rail services that have ground to a halt.
“SNP Ministers must urgently redouble their efforts and work with all parties to find a solution once and for all. These strikes are now threatening to cast a shadow over COP26.”
Neil Bibby, Scottish Labour’s transport spokesperson, echoed the criticism.
He said: “COP26 is falling into sheer chaos as the SNP’s industrial relations collapse.
“It is an embarrassment to Scotland that the SNP can’t even keep the trains running when the world’s eyes are upon us.
“This conference is supposed to be about preventing environmental catastrophe – and the SNP are setting the stage by letting trains grind to a halt and litter fill the streets.
“Rail workers were on the front line right through the pandemic and the way they have been treated in return is disgraceful.
“The SNP must intervene to deliver a fair pay deal before their contempt for workers brings COP26 to its knees.”
Responding to the strike action announcement, a ScotRail spokesperson said: “It’s extremely disappointing that the RMT have opted to continue with this highly damaging strike action, particularly when a pay offer, negotiated over several weeks, has been made to the trade unions.
“We’re seeing customers gradually return to Scotland’s Railway, but the scale of the financial situation ScotRail is facing is stark.
“To build a more sustainable and greener railway for the future and reduce the burden on the taxpayer, we need to change. All of us in the railway – management, staff, trade unions, suppliers, and government – need to work together to modernise the railway so that it is fit for the future.”
A Transport Scotland spokesperson added: “We welcome the constructive talks which have taken place between all parties.
“A significant offer has been made by employers since this RMT ballot opened and we understand that the RMT will now ballot its membership again on the substance of this offer.
“We hope that RMT members and the other unions will agree and accept this offer, putting to an end existing and proposed industrial disputes and action.
“Rail workers have played their part in keeping the country moving through the pandemic and we are sure that they will see the importance of the moment and the role they can play in showing the best Scotland’s Railway has to offer as we welcome world leaders from across the globe to COP26.”
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said last week that she hoped the dispute could be resolved before Cop26.
She said: "I would strongly encourage both sides of this dispute to get back round the table and find a resolution that is in the interests of those who work in our railways."