LONDON ( Associated Press) – Tens of thousands of railway workers walked off work in Britain on Tuesday, bringing the train network to a crawl in the country’s largest transit strike for three decades – and a potential forerunner of a summer of labor discontent.
About 40,000 cleaners, signalers, maintenance workers and station staff went on a 24-hour strike, with two more scheduled for Thursday and Saturday. To exacerbate the pain for commuters, the London Underground service was also hit by an outing on Tuesday.
The dispute focuses on pay, working conditions and job security, as Britain’s railways struggle to adapt to travel and commuting habits that have been changed – perhaps forever – by the coronavirus pandemic. With passenger numbers not yet back to pre-pandemic levels, but the government ending emergency support that kept the railways going, train companies are trying to cut costs and staff.
Sustained national strikes are uncommon in Britain these days, but unions have warned the country to prepare for more, as workers face the worst cost-of-living in more than a generation. Lawyers in England and Wales have announced they will step down from next week, while unions representing teachers and postal workers are both planning to consult their members on possible action.
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Major railway stations were largely deserted on Tuesday, with only about 20 percent of passenger trains scheduled to run. Services will resume Wednesday, but ongoing disruption means only about 60 percent of trains will operate. Talks between the Railways, Maritime and Transport Union and employers will also resume on Wednesday, although the two parties seemed far apart.
The strike lifted plans for employees trying to get to work, students heading to the end of the year and music lovers making their way to the Glastonbury Festival, which kicks off in south-west England on Wednesday.
Roads in London were more congested than usual as commuters turned to cars and taxis. But the fallout was 27 percent lower than last Tuesday, according to retail analysts Springboard, as many people canceled trips or worked from home if they could.
Nurse manager Priya Govender was at London Bridge station on Tuesday morning and was struggling to get back to her home south of the city after spending the night in a hotel.
“I will definitely not be able to get a bus, because they are packed. “I will have to get an Uber,” she said. “My day was awful. It’s going to be a long day, and I still have a full day’s work to do. ” She planned to work from home as soon as she made it there.
The Center for Economics and Business Research Consulting said the three days of strikes could cost the economy at least 91 million pounds ($ 112 million).
Kate Nicholls, chief operating officer of UKHospitality, said the strike would cost restaurants, cafes and pubs much-needed business after two years of pandemic disruption, and “fragile consumer confidence would suffer further.”
With inflation currently running at 9 per cent, the RMT union says it cannot accept rail companies’ latest offer of a 3 per cent increase.
But the train companies claim they can no longer bid, given the current passenger numbers. There were almost 1 billion train journeys in the UK in the year to March – compared to 1.7 billion in the 12 months before the pandemic.
While the Conservative government says it is not involved in the talks, the union notes that it plays a major role in the heavily regulated industry, including providing subsidies long before the pandemic, arguing that it gives railway companies more flexibility can give to offer a substantial salary increase.
The government has warned that large increases will create a wage price spiral that will drive inflation even higher.
Electrical engineer Harry Charles said he supported the strikers – even though his normal 10-minute train journey to London Bridge took him 90 minutes by bus.
“Their money is not going up, and the cost of everything is rising,” he said. “The strike has caused a lot of trouble for people, but everyone wants to be able to eat and can afford to put in a good day’s work.”
All sides are watching the public frustration, especially in the case of repeated disruptions, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to place responsibility for the strike firmly with the unions.
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He told his cabinet on Tuesday that the strikes were “so wrong and so unnecessary” and said “union barons” should sit down with bosses and come to an agreement.
The government says it plans to change the law so that train companies will have to provide a minimum level of service during outings, if necessary by appointing contract workers to fill in for striking staff.
Johnson knows strikes can define a government, and sometimes defeat it. In the 1970s, a spate of outbursts against a backdrop of high inflation – culminating in the 1978-’79 “Winter of Discontent”, when bodies were unburied and rubbish piled up in the streets – helped Britain’s To overthrow Labor government and bring Conservative Prime Minister Margaret to power Thatcher.
Thatcher’s decade in office led to free market reforms that curtailed the power of trade unions and created a more flexible – and, for workers, more uncertain – economy. Britain has since had relatively low strikes. But that could change as the UK hits its highest inflation levels in decades.
Millions of people in Britain, such as those across Europe, are watching their living costs skyrocket, driven in part by Russia’s war in Ukraine, which is squeezing energy supplies and food stacks, including wheat. Prices had already risen before the war as the global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic fueled strong consumer demand.
Susan Millson of South London, who abandoned a train journey to see her sister south of the city, blamed both sides for the strike.
“I just think it is outrageous that there is no give and take between the unions and the government,” she said. “Nobody is giving any space at the moment. It’s terrible. “