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ScotRail strike must be averted

There is a small ray of light at the end of the tunnel in the dispute that threatens to derail the Christmas travel plans of thousands of Scots attempting to get home for Christmas.

Today the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) is due to sit down with train operator ScotRail in an attempt to resolve the row over sacked ticket inspector Scott Lewis and avert rail strikes scheduled for next Saturday and Christmas Eve.

The intemperate language being deployed on both sides suggests that such a resolution might be unlikely. More's the pity.

It is no coincidence that the RMT is the union at the centre of a wave of disruption on Scottish trains and ferries over the festive season. Ferry services to Orkney were cancelled yesterday as part of a walk-out over flexible working and Network Rail signalling workers in Stirling are involved in a series of 24-hour stoppages over shift patterns. CrossCountry Trains, which operates the cross-Border service to Aberdeen, is the focus of the latest dispute over a series of unresolved issues.

To some, RMT General Secretary Bob Crow is a working-class hero. To others, he is an unwelcome remnant of 1970s-style trade union militancy. Though he may maintain that his job is to avert strikes, he is said to have been responsible for more than any other trade union leader, since taking up his post a decade ago. This is perhaps not surprising. Public sector cutbacks and globalisation, with the consequent race to the bottom on wages and working conditions, have weakened other trade unions. Meanwhile, transport workers, employed by private companies that do not have the option of outsourcing jobs to India or China, have continued to enjoy the benefit of union muscle.

Mr Crow has a simple view of his job, which earns him in excess of £130,000 a year. It is to defend his members and get them the best deal he can. As a result, the pay and conditions of transport workers have improved markedly during his reign at the RMT.

However, he and his members risk forfeiting public sympathy and alienating the ScotRail travelling public by withdrawing their labour at the very time when other hard-pressed workers are travelling home for a well-earned break with family and friends.

There are two sides to every story. The RMT maintains Mr Lewis was sacked for no more than trying to help a passenger buy the correct ticket. ScotRail speak of "intimidating and aggressive behaviour". The appropriate place to resolve this difference of opinion is at an employment tribunal, not the picket line. Imagine what would happen if nurses or firemen went on strike every time their trade union leader believed one of their colleagues had been disciplined unfairly. That is why it is incumbent on both sides to tone down their language and resolve this dispute, rather than hold the travelling public to ransom.

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