ScotRail cuts: Scottish minister urges workers to consider risks of potential recession when asking for pay rises amid train dispute

Industry leaders have warned of serious knock-on impacts for the hospitality industry and businesses which have returned to pre-pandemic working patterns ahead of major disruption on Scotland’s railways from Monday due to a pay dispute.

Sunday, 22nd May 2022, 6:13 pm

It comes as a leading SNP minister told workers across all sectors to consider the risks of a potential recession and whether Scotland can afford increasing wages when asking for pay rises.

Richard Lochhead, the minister for employment and fair work, told the BBC’s Sunday Show that workers should ask themselves whether their pay rise asks would be “affordable” and to compromise amid inflation nearing 10 per cent and a cost-of-living crisis.

It comes after Nicola Sturgeon referenced the salary of ScotRail drivers in First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, with reports suggesting drivers involved in the pay dispute can earn up to £80,000.

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Unions also warned they would deliberately target events such as the Edinburgh Fringe to ensure maximum impact in their ongoing pay dispute with ScotRail.

Major sporting events such as the 150th edition of the Open, set to take place in St Andrews in July, and the World Cup play-off at Hampden between Scotland and Ukraine next week, are also under threat.

Critics have called for ScotRail to ensure enough trains run for both events to avoid spectators and fans becoming stranded due to the lack of drivers.

Richard Lochhead was on the BBC's Sunday Show.

Ministers have said plans are being worked up to cope with such events.

Widespread disruption on Scotland’s railways will begin on Monday with the implementation of a temporary timetable on ScotRail services due to the ongoing pay dispute with drivers who have stopped working overtime and on their rest days, with the pay offer on the table labelled “derisory”.

On Sunday, more than 300 ScotRail services were cancelled ahead of the introduction of the new timetable, which will see almost 700 daily services cut, dropping from 2,150 to 1,456.

Reports suggest the dispute could result in a hit to the economy of around £80 million a week.

ScotRail passengers at Glasgow Queen Street station. Picture: John Devlin

Businesses are also warning the disruption will hurt the hospitality industry and those who have returned to pre-pandemic working patterns.

Colin Borland, spokesperson for the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland, warned: “Ongoing disruption to Scotland’s railway system will have a knock-on impact to all sorts of industries.

“For example, our hospitality industry will take a hit if consumers aren’t sure how they’ll get home.

"Businesses, which have agreed arrangements with workers to return to the workplace, now face a fresh headache as commuters wrangle with a severely limited timetable. Shift work will also become harder.

“We’d urge to everyone involved in this dispute to get back around the negotiating table and to come up with a solution as soon as possible.”

In an interview with the BBC’s Sunday Show, Mr Lochhead separately said the Government was strongly urging ScotRail and the unions to return to the negotiating table.

He defended the decision to take ScotRail into public ownership despite the problems and said the Government could not force a solution due to the company being operated at an arms length.

Asked whether ScotRail drivers earn enough, Mr Lochhead said workers in Scotland should consider the risks of a potential recession when asking for more money.

He said: “Well, my message to all workers in Scotland in all these sectors is that we have to be sensible. Everything has to be affordable, because the country is in a very, very precarious position at the moment and if we take wrong decisions we could end up with a recession in the near future, which will cause a lot of damage to people’s lives, local businesses in Scotland and the economy.

"It’s not for me as a minister to say what the right or wrong wages for a train driver or anyone else are, but just to say it is really important that people are compromising, they’re being constructive and they recognise the consequences of these disputes dragging on.

"I’d ask everyone to look at whether the country can afford what they are asking for.”

The SNP politician said the problems around driver shortages would be “sorted in the coming months”.

He said: “It’s in public ownership, therefore it is operating not behalf on shareholders, but on behalf of the public interest in Scotland. But in terms of pay negotiations between employees and management, we are urging them as hard as we can to stay around the table, please get this sorted as quickly as possible, otherwise it is going to be counter-productive the longer it goes on.”

He later called on the UK Government to “urgently pull their fingers out of their ears” and act to help the public cope with the cost-of-living crisis and inflation hitting 9 per cent.

Mr Lochhead said: “But quite clearly if you are facing higher food bills, rocketing energy bills, you’re clearly going to want that reflected in your salary, what you earn for a good day’s work.

"This is a very difficult situation that people are in. Households throughout the country, as I’ve said before, we are doing our best to help those on lower incomes and most vulnerable people in society from a Scottish Government perspective.

"The way to release some of this pressure is for the UK Government to finally act and do something about the energy bills and the other inflationary costs and to help upgrade the benefits by inflation as well that people are receiving.”

Kevin Lindsay, the Scottish organiser for train drivers union Aslef, labelled the comments about workers risking the economy as “not credible”.

He said: “Minister Richard Lochhead said he wants people to be 'sensible' over pay claims. From an Aslef point of view, the most sensible thing that he could do right now is to tell ScotRail to get back to the negotiating table to settle this dispute, so that the ridiculous timetable cuts that are planned for tomorrow can be withdrawn and our railways can get back to serving the public.

"It is not sensible to ask workers to accept 2.2 per cent when inflation is heading north of 10 per cent and it is not credible to blame workers for the state of the economy.”

Opposition MSPs also attacked the minister’s responses, with Scottish Labour transport spokesperson Neil Bibby labelling Mr Lochhead’s interview “a masterclass in desperate spin”.

He said: “The minister had no answers to the chaos engulfing ScotRail on the SNP’s watch.

“To claim that the Government cannot act is laughable. The Government run ScotRail, therefore they own these cuts and own this crisis.”

Graham Simpson, the Scottish Conservative transport spokesperson, said the comments were an “insult” to rail passengers.

He said: “The SNP and the likes of Richard Lochhead continue to insult passengers with their lacklustre attitude towards the chaos which has unfolded since they took over the running of our rail service.

“Nat-Rail is just seven weeks into service and it has already been added to the mountain of SNP failures on transport.

“Instead of trying to brush this shambolic situation under the carpet, the SNP must sort out the mess they have caused and strike a deal to end this dispute.”

The comments come as rail workers union RMT warned it would deliberately target the Edinburgh Festival for maximum impact.

In the Sunday Post, the union’s Scotland organiser, Mick Hogg, said: “We would deliberately target the Edinburgh Festival because that’s where the impact is going be.

“The festival is worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the economy and attracts tourist from all over the world.

“To lose out on that would have a massive detrimental impact on the Scottish economy. With no trains running Edinburgh would be a ghost town.

“Out the window would be the Scottish Government’s green credentials because people would be forced into their cars, into using taxis and buses.”

ScotRail service delivery director David Simpson did not comment on the specific threat around the Edinburgh Festival.

He said the train operator was “very disappointed” at the prospect of a ballot for industrial action and stressed a “very good offer” had been made.

“We have made a pay offer that recognises the hard work of our colleagues and the cost-of-living challenges faced by families across the country, while delivering value for the taxpayer,” he said.

“Should our employees who are represented by RMT vote yes to strike and then take action, it will only cause more damage.

“We are still trying to recover from the pandemic. With customer numbers around one third below pre-Covid levels, it remains a very challenging time for Scotland’s railway.

“We have assured RMT and our workforce that we remain open and committed to further discussions to resolve the dispute and move forward together to build a railway that is fit for the future.”

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