It was announced on Friday that RMT union members will strike on December 20 and 21, a move that will cause huge disruption for shoppers and commuters with no Metro trains running on two of the busiest days of the year.
And with no end in sight to a pay dispute that has already seen drivers reject a 15% wage increase, there are now warnings that those shutdowns might be the first of many.
Train drivers have also been imposing a ban on overtime working since last week, which will continue, but the RMT says that “hasn’t worked” and more radical action is now required.
Metro operator Nexus has called the strike “unjustified” and said drivers’ demands were “unaffordable and unrealistic”.
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Steve Hedley, the union’s assistant general secretary, said: “Our members have had enough. This is not a decision that they have taken lightly, but they feel that there is no other option.”
He added: “I think this is going to go towards more industrial action. We do what our members tells us, but I think strike action will be more regular now if this is not resolved. People are just fed up.
“We thought that Nexus would be on the phone in the run-up to the industrial action to put a better offer on the table.
“Instead they choose to go to the press and give a skewed version of events.
“They know that they are not offering a competitive wage. What we are putting forward is what is best for the company.
“They cannot sustain a situation where they are losing staff all of the time. Even before the industrial action, trains have been getting cancelled because there are not enough drivers.”
Mr Hedley said that rival rail firms such as LNER, TransPennine Express, and ScotRail offer annual driver salaries of around £55,000 – far higher than the £46,000 that Nexus has offered.
He added: “People are leaving their jobs every day because, quite frankly, the company is not paying competitively for drivers.
“So the drivers are leaving for other companies and that is causing absolute chaos. Our drivers cannot get annual leave, they are being expected to work overtime shifts.”
It is expected that no trains will run at all on either Black Eye Friday, famous for being one of the busiest nights of the year due to pre-Christmas nights out, or the following day, when Newcastle United have a home game at St James’ Park.
Metro services director Chris Carson said that drivers are paid “well above the average wage for the region” and that meeting the union’s wage demands would lead to budget cuts to the Metro and Nexus-funded bus routes.
He added: “We initiated further talks two weeks ago to avoid industrial action and agreed to meet the vast majority of the union’s other demands for improved rostering and shift patterns, but this was still not enough to prevent them from walking away and starting industrial action.
“Nexus is publicly funded and Metro does not make a profit. We use revenue from fares and a subsidy from taxpayers in order to meet Metro’s running costs, and we are already under huge funding pressure.”
He added: “I am sorry for the impact this dispute will have on working people who use Metro and local businesses in the run-up to Christmas, but we simply cannot afford to go beyond the very reasonable offer we have made. It seems that the RMT union is determined to bring the Metro system to a halt in an attempt to force us to pay its members even more than the significant sums we have already offered.
“I urge our employees to ignore the hard-line and wholly unreasonable tactics being proposed by their union. Industrial action on the Metro harms an essential public transport service, its passengers, and the area as a whole.”