Tens of thousands of workers left on Tuesday on the first day of Britain’s biggest rail strike in 30 years, and passengers faced further chaos as both unions and the government vowed to stick to their stance on wages.
Some of the more than 40,000 railroad workers due to strike Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday have been picketing since dawn, causing major network disruptions and leaving major stations deserted. The London Underground Underground was also largely closed due to a separate strike.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who needs to do more to help the British, facing the worst economic blow in decades, said the strike would hurt businesses still recovering from COVID.
The unions said the railroad strikes could mark the start of a “summer of discontent” with teachers, medics, waste workers and even lawyers going on strike. inflation pushes 10%.
“The British worker needs a pay rise,” Mick Lynch, general secretary of the rail, maritime and transport union, told Sky News. “They need job security and decent conditions.”
During the morning rush hour, the roads were busier than usual with cars, bicycles and pedestrians. Hospital staff said some colleagues slept through the night at work to support care. Johnson told his cabinet that the strikes were “wrong and unnecessary” and said his message to the country was that they must be prepared to “hold the course” as better railroads were in the public interest.
A poll by YouGov earlier this month showed that public opinion was divided, with about half of those polled opposed to the action, while just over a third said they supported it.
Leo Rudolph, a 36-year-old lawyer who walked to work, said the longer the argument went on, the more unhappy he would become.
This won’t be an isolated incident, right? he told Reuters.
Inflation has jumped across Europe amid massive increases in energy prices, and the UK is not the only one facing strikes. Action over the cost of living in Belgium caused disruptions at Brussels airport on Monday as Germany’s most powerful trade union pushes for massive wage increases and in France, President Emmanuel Macron faces unrest over pension reform.
The British economy initially recovered strongly after COVID-19 pandemic, but a combination of labor shortages, supply chain disruption, inflation and post-Brexit trade problems have sparked recession warnings. The government says it is supporting millions of the poorest households, but warns that raising wages above inflation will damage the fundamentals of the economy and prolong the problem.
British railways were effectively nationalized during the pandemic, with rail companies paying flat fees to provide services while tracks and infrastructure are run by state-owned Network Rail.
RMT wants its members to receive at least a 7% pay raise, but said Network Rail has offered 2%, with another 1% linked to industry reforms it opposes. The government was criticized for not participating in the negotiations. The ministers say the unions should address this issue directly with the employers. The outbreak of strikes can be compared to the 1970s when the UK faced massive strikes, including the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79.
The number of unionized British workers has roughly halved since the 1970s, and strikes have become far less frequent, in part due to changes made by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to make it harder to call a strike. The government says it will now quickly change the law to force train operators to provide minimum service on strike days and allow employers to bring in temporary staff.
The strikes come as travelers at UK airports face chaotic delays and last-minute cancellations due to a shortage of staff, while the health service falters under the pressure of long waiting lists created during the pandemic.