Sadiq Khan signals support for striking Tube workers’ pension demands but more walkouts possible

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Striking workers on the London Underground have been given a thin glimmer of hope, as Sadiq Khan appeared to signal his backing for union demands not to cut staff pensions.

The London mayor said on Thursday that he was “not persuaded that there are any grounds to change the pensions of those who work” for Transport for London (TfL), adding: “It’s for the government to make the case.”

But his comments came as workers “decisively” reaffirmed their backing for further industrial action over the long-running dispute, raising the prospect of further disruption over the coming months.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) are set to press ahead with their third national strike this week on Saturday, while Tube workers staged separate walkouts in March and June.

But by law, the RMT had to reballot its members for their support to continue with future strikes, and more than 90 per cent of those who voted on a 53 per cent turnout backed future industrial action – handing the union a legal mandate for action to continue into December.

While no new strike dates have been set, they will be decided by the union’s executive in due course.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch hailed “a fantastic result for our members” which he said “proves that the arguments RMT has been making is endorsed by Tube workers”.

Mr Lynch said: “We are acutely aware of the funding cuts being foisted on TfL by the Westminster government.

“However, Mayor Sadiq Khan needs to mount a serious campaign for the people of London, to get the capital city the funding it deserves for its public transport. He should not be trying to sacrifice our members’ pensions and jobs to fit within budget restraints laid down by Boris Johnson.”

As a condition of the government’s Covid bail-out for London’s transport operator last year, TfL was told to carry out a review of its pension scheme and reform options.

In a resulting review commissioned by Mr Khan, former union boss Sir Brendan Barber identified TfL’s pensions scheme as “the only benefit of substance (other than pay) on offer to TfL employees” and a “highly valued asset across all sections of the workforce”.

While Sir Brendan suggested that alterations to the pensions scheme could save between £79.3m and £182.4m per year, he did not make any explicit recommendation that the scheme – which he said was “very well run with a sophisticated investment strategy” – should be reformed.

Sir Brendan warned that “were any path to change be embarked upon, it would be years, not months, before any change could be implemented and possibly longer still before the effects of any cost savings could be felt”, and would “require a major role” by central government.

While no changes to the scheme have yet been proposed, and any future reforms would be subject to consultation with all stakeholders including unions and staff, striking TfL workers want guarantees that workers’ pensions will be protected – as well as pledges over hundreds of feared job cuts.

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Mr Khan’s comments on pensions on Thursday came as he accused transport secretary Grant Shapps of “zero engagement” over TfL’s funding crisis, and warned that without a long-term funding plan Londoners would see a 10 per cent reduction in underground services – equivalent to an entire Tube line – and the loss of more than 100 bus routes.

TfL is one of the only transport authorities in the world not to receive a direct government grant for running costs, The Independent has been told. A fourth Covid bail-out deal in February included the potential for a longer-term funding arrangement “dependent on the mayor and TfL’s co-operation with the government”.

“More short-term extensions with no promise of any additional long-term funding simply doesn’t cut it,” the mayor said on Thursday, warning of a “managed decline” of the network, “gridlocked roads” and “toxic air pollution” if ministers “continue to refuse to provide a fair funding deal”.

He urged the prime minister and Mr Shapps “to stop playing politics with an issue of such great national importance” and “stop levelling down London to try to gain political support elsewhere, and start working with me in good faith”.

But Mr Shapps said suggesting a lack of engagement was “misleading” and claimed Mr Khan had failed to provide evidence required to progress talks.

DfT officials have met TfL counterparts “on a regular basis to try and agree this deal and the mayor is well aware of this”, Mr Shapps said, adding: “To suggest anything else is simply not true and an attempt to deflect from his inability to responsibly manage the capital's transport finances, despite receiving almost £5bn of government bailouts.”

Meanwhile, Saturday will see the third day of national strike action on British railways this week, with only a fifth of services set to run and half of lines to be closed as 40,000 RMT members walk out over a dispute with Network Rail and 13 train operators over jobs, pay, pensions and conditions.