LONDON (Reuters) - Rail workers in Britain will stage a national strike later this month in a dispute over pay, the RMT union announced on Friday, a move that could bring misery to millions of commuters.
The union said its 16,000 staff at Network Rail, which maintains Britain's railway infrastructure, including track and signalling, would stage a 24-hour walk-out on May 25, which is a public holiday, continuing into May 26, a normal working day.
It would be the first nationwide rail strike for 20 years according to media reports, and will provide a challenge to the new Conservative government which has promised to change laws on industrial action to make it harder for those working in essential public services to stage walk-outs.
"The failure of the company to make any moves whatsoever in light of the overwhelming vote in the ballot has left us with no option but to move to a rolling programme of industrial action," said RMT General Secretary Mick Cash.
On Tuesday, the union said 80 per cent of members had backed strikes and that 92 per cent supported action short of a walk-out.
The union said it was opposed to a one-off non-consolidated payment of 500 pounds for staff this year and was concerned that Network Rail's was only promising to make no compulsory redundancies for the next two years.
Network Rail, which also manages 18 of Britain's biggest stations including King's Cross, Waterloo and Victoria in London, Birmingham New Street and Glasgow Central, said it was "deplorable" that unions could hold the country to ransom.
"This strike is deliberately timed to cause maximum disruption to families trying to enjoy the half-term break and millions more returning to work after the bank holiday," said Mark Carne, its chief executive.
He said staff at the not-for-profit company, which employs 35,000 staff in total, had received pay rises eight times higher than other public sector workers over the last four years.
Both sides said they hoped the strike could be averted, and will meet on Monday at the mediation service Acas to see if the dispute can be resolved.
Prime Minister David Cameron's new government has indicated it will legislate to outlaw strikes in essential public services such as health, transport, or fire services unless ballot turnout is 50 per cent and the action is backed by at least 40 per cent of union members.
The RMT said its ballot, which attracted a turnout of 62 per cent, would meet these proposed criteria.