Biggest rail strike in 30 years brings Britain to a standstill

  • More than 40,000 railway workers go on strike
  • Government under pressure over cost of living crisis
  • Unions say strike could start ‘summer of discontent’

LONDON, June 21 (Reuters) – Britain’s biggest rail strike in 30 years began on Tuesday as tens of thousands of workers fled the country in a dispute over wages and jobs, paving the way for widespread industrial action across the economy in the coming months could.

Some of the more than 40,000 rail workers scheduled to go on strike on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday began gathering at picket lines from dawn, shutting down the network and leaving major stations abandoned. The London Underground was also mostly closed due to a separate strike.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been under pressure to do more to help UK households facing the worst economic hit in decades, said the industrial action would hurt businesses as they continue to recover from the pandemic.

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Unions said the rail strikes could mark the start of a “summer of discontent” in which teachers, medics, garbage disposal workers and even lawyers will take industrial action as rising food and fuel prices push inflation to 10%. Continue reading

“The British worker needs a raise,” Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), told Sky News.

“You need job security, decent conditions and generally a fair deal, if we can get that we don’t have to have the disruption in the UK economy that we have now and which could develop over the summer.”

Johnson said the unions are harming the people they say they are trying to help.

“By continuing these railroad strikes, they are driving out commuters who ultimately support railroad workers’ jobs, while also impacting businesses and communities across the country,” he will tell his cabinet on Tuesday, according to his office.

The government has been criticized by opposition MPs for refusing to take part in talks to settle the dispute. Ministers say it is up to unions to work directly with railway companies.

A poll by pollster YouGov earlier this month found that public opinion on the strikes was divided, with around half of those polled opposing the action and just over a third saying they supported it.

Leo Rudolph, a 36-year-old attorney who walked to work, said he became more upset the longer the argument went on.

“This won’t be an isolated case, will it?” he told Reuters. “I’m certainly going to get more and more frustrated every time that happens.”

DESTRUCTIVE INFLATION

The UK economy initially rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic, but a combination of labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, post-Brexit inflation and trade woes have prompted warnings of a recession.

The government says it is providing extra support to millions of the poorest households but says wage increases above inflation would damage the fundamentals of the economy.

“Persistently higher levels of inflation would have a far greater impact on people’s wages over the long term, destroying savings and prolonging the difficulties we face,” Johnson said.

The outbreak of industrial action has been compared to the 1970s when Britain faced widespread workers’ strikes, including the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79. Continue reading

The number of British workers who are union members has roughly halved since the 1970s, with walkouts being much less common, partly due to changes by former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to limit union powers and make it more difficult to call a strike .

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government would amend the law as soon as possible to force rail operators to perform minimum service on strike days and allow other workers to temporarily replace staff who have left.

“We will take steps to ensure that things like this are less harmful going forward,” he told Sky News.

The strikes come as travelers at UK airports face chaotic delays and last-minute cancellations due to staff shortages, while many Brits have to wait months for new passports to arrive due to processing delays.

The rail strike means only around half of the UK rail network will be open on strike days, with very limited operations on those routes and persistent disruption on the days between strike days.

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Edited by Edmund Blair, Kate Holton and Raissa Kasolowsky

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