UK rail strike upset passengers, pitted workers against government

LONDON (AP) – Thousands of rail workers in Britain laid off their jobs on Tuesday, bringing the train network to a crawl in the country’s biggest transit strike in three decades.

About 40,000 sweepers, signallers, maintenance personnel and station workers went on a 24-hour strike, with two more planned on Thursday and Saturday. Adding to the pain for commuters, London Underground Metro services were also affected by the walkout on Tuesday.

Controversy centers over pay, working conditions and job security as Britain’s railways struggle to change travel and commuting habits – perhaps forever – by the coronavirus pandemic. Passenger numbers are still not up to pre-pandemic levels and with the government ending the emergency support that has kept railways afloat during the past two years, train companies are calling for cost and staff cuts.

Unions say it could be the start of a summer of labor discontent as British workers face the worst costs in more than a generation. Lawyers in England and Wales have announced they will hold walkouts from next week, and teachers unions plan to consult with their members about possible action.

Major railway stations were largely deserted, with around 20% of passenger trains running on Tuesday. The strike halted plans for workers trying to go to work, students during exam season and music-lovers for the Glastonbury Festival in south-west England starting Wednesday.

Nurse manager Priya Govendra was at London Bridge station, struggling to make her way back to her home in the south of the city after spending the night in a hotel.

“I definitely won’t be able to get the bus because they are packed. I’ll have to take an Uber,” she said. “I’ve had a terrible day. It’s going to be a long day, and I still have a full day’s work to do.” Once there, he plans to work from home on Tuesday.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of industry body UKHospitality, said the walkout would cost restaurant, cafe and bar business what is desperately needed after two years of pandemic disruption.

“Fragile consumer confidence will take another hit, preventing thousands of people able and willing to spend money in hospitality venues across the country, while employees will undoubtedly struggle to get to work,” she said.

With inflation currently running at 9%, the Rail, Marine and Transport Association says it cannot accept rail firms’ latest proposal for a 3% hike.

But train companies argue that given the current passenger numbers, they cannot offer any more. There were nearly 1 billion train journeys in the UK from March to March – compared with 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 played a major role in the heavily regulated industry, including providing subsidies long before the pandemic, and argues that it would give rail companies substantial wage increases. more flexibility to offer. ,

The government has warned that large wage increases will exacerbate wage-price spiral inflation.

All parties are monitoring public opinion, watching carefully where people lay the blame, especially in the face of repeated disruptions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to take responsibility for the strike firmly on unions.

He told his cabinet on Tuesday that the strike was “so wrong and so unnecessary” and added that “union veterans” should sit down with the bosses and strike a deal.

The government says it plans to change the law to require train companies to provide a minimum level of service during walkouts in order to hire contract workers to fill in striking workers.

Johnson knows that strikes can define and sometimes defeat a government. In the 1970s, a wave of walkouts against a backdrop of high inflation – culminating in the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978–79, when bodies were buried and garbage piled up on the streets – toppled Britain’s Labor government and the Conservatives Helped to get the prime minister. Thatcher for power.

Thatcher’s decade in office brought free-market reforms that curtailed the power of trade unions and created a more resilient – ​​and, for workers, more precarious – economy. Since then there have been a relatively small number of attacks in Britain. But that may change as the UK is hit by its highest level of inflation in decades.

Millions of people in Britain, like all of Europe, are seeing their cost of living skyrocket, fueled by Russia’s war in Ukraine, which is squeezing supplies of energy and food staples, including wheat. Prices were rising even before the war, as the global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic fueled strong consumer demand.

This is why electrical engineer Harry Charles said he favored the strikers – even though their typical 10-minute train journey to London Bridge took them 90 minutes by bus.

“Their money isn’t growing, and the price of everything is going up,” he said. “The strike has caused a lot of trouble for people, but everyone wants to be able to eat and be able to have a good day’s work.”

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