Britain is facing a summer of discontent with more workers set to be balloted on strike action, a union chief has warned, as a series of walkouts is set to cripple the rail network.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has predicted industrial action could spread to other services, arguing that “people can’t take it anymore”.
Unions representing teachers and NHS workers have also threatened industrial action over pay.
Speaking ahead of three days of staggered rail strikes, which is set to cause widespread disruption for millions of train passengers, he insisted he wanted to reach a settlement, but his members had no choice but to “fight”.
But Mr Lynch has been accused by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps of “gunning” for strikes, which he argued would be “disastrous” for the industry.
Mr Lynch told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “I think there are going to be many unions balloting across the country, because people can’t take it anymore.
“We have got people doing full time jobs who are having to take state benefits and use food banks. That is a national disgrace.”
He confirmed his union will press ahead with walkouts over pay, conditions and job losses.
The strikes will take place on Tuesday 21, Thursday 23 and Saturday 25 June.
But Network Rail has said the industrial action will cause six days of disruption because services will be affected on the days in between.
It threatens to be the start of a summer of discontent, amid widespread concern over the cost of living crisis as inflation is forecast to top 11% later this year.
Mr Lynch added: “We don’t want to be the cause of disruption in people’s lives. We want a settlement to this dispute, but we are facing a crisis for our members.
“If we don’t play our hand thousands of my members will lose their jobs, railway services will be cut back, the safety regime that has been in place for a good deal of time will be cut back.
“We have to fight this this.
“Because we haven’t had any pay rises we are faced with thousands of job cuts and they want to rip out terms and conditions in a form of fire and rehire that’s internal to the railway. It’s just as ruthless as P&O really.
“We are available to negotiate.”
He also said claims by the transport secretary that the union refused to attend talks on Saturday in a bid to head off the strikes was “an entire fabrication”.
Mr Lynch said: “He’s making it up. What he’s saying is untrue. There were no negotiations scheduled.”
He added: “If there’s not a settlement we will continue our campaign.”
Battle over future of train travel set to rage on
Anyone hoping for a last-minute breakthrough to avert these strikes will be disappointed listening to the main protagonists today.
Both sides are blaming each other for the breakdown of talks with accusations already swirling of lying and bad faith.
But on the detail, the situation looks irreconcilable as well.
The RMT appears to be asking for pay rises of 7% while the offer on the table seems to be in the region of 2-3%.
Ministers have already indicated their resistance to giving the nod to large wage increase given their belief it would fuel inflation and allow other sectors to demand more money.
Those demands are likely to come anyway though, along with the risk of strike action spreading to other workplaces in the months to come.
But there’s a deeper and more specific clash going on here about the future shape of the railways.
For years now the government and train operators have been pushing for changes to the sector.
We’ve already had disputes over a move to driver-only operation.
Ticket offices now appear to be another flash point, with mass closures possible as more people book their travel online and use contactless payments.
These rows may all pale in comparison to the inevitable fight that will arrive at some point over increased automation and driverless trains.
The pandemic has exacerbated the situation further given changes to how we all work and travel and the desire from the government to claw back some of the cash put in to keep the sector afloat.
But what minister see as modernisation, unions see as cost-cutting and a threat to livelihoods.
That’s why even if a solution on pay can be found now, this battle over the future of train travel is not going away anytime soon.
But Mr Shapps told Ridge: “They are gunning for this strike action I am afraid and it’s going to inconvenience millions of Britons.
“It is disastrous. It is no way to behave on the railway. There is no advantage to this. I know Mick Lynch says he is ‘nostalgic for union power’ but this is no way to behave.”
He dismissed calls by the RMT for the government to step in to resolve the rail dispute as a “stunt”.
Mr Shapps said: “The trade unions know that only the trade union and the employer can settle this.
“I will not cut across that. I will not undermine the employer’s works.
“This is a stunt at the 11th hour by the union, suddenly coming forward and saying ‘We need to negotiate with the government now’ even though this last month they told me they wouldn’t be seen dead negotiating with the government.”
He added: “Of course, it is a reality that if we can’t get these railways modernised, if we can’t get the kind of efficiency that will mean that they can work on behalf of the travelling public, then of course it is jeopardising the future of the railway itself.
“I think it is a huge act of self-harm to go on strike at the moment.
“I don’t believe the workers are anywhere as militant as their unions who are leading them up the garden path. They are gunning for this strike. It is completely unnecessary.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Nobody should want them to go ahead.
“But here’s the truth, Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps want the strikes to go ahead.
“They want the country to grind to a halt so they can feed off the division.
“Instead of spending their time this week around the negotiating table, they are designing attack ads.
“Instead of grown-up conversations to take the heat out of the situation, they are pouring petrol on the fire.
“Instead of bringing people together in the national interest, they are stoking division in their political interest.”