Largest rail strike in 30 years brings UK to a standstill

Millions of Britons face a week of transport chaos. The first day of the biggest rail strike in 30 years has been supported by 40,000 workers. Less than 20% of usual services will be available during a three-day stoppage, which includes Thursday and Saturday, but will effectively disrupt train services until Sunday. Stations in England, Wales and Scotland were virtually deserted on Tuesday and the authorities’ advice to citizens is to stay at home and work from home whenever possible, or seek alternative forms of transport.

The strike was called by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union in dispute with the government over pay, conditions and future job cuts and pensions; between 40,000 and 50,000 workers took part in the walkout.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson accuses the strikers of hurting the very people they claim to help and calls the walkout “unnecessary and damaging” because plans to reform the rail system will go ahead. “By going ahead with these rail strikes, they are driving away commuters who ultimately support the jobs of rail workers, while hurting businesses and communities across the country,” says Johnson

The RMT counters that these reforms mean thousands of jobs cut and current wages do not reflect the rising cost of living. The government’s latest proposal was for a 3% increase, when current inflation stands at 9% and will reach 11% in October. In addition, “wages have been frozen for several years,” says RMT general secretary Mick Lynch. Nor has the government “given any assurances that there will be no compulsory redundancies,” he adds. “There needs to be job security, decent conditions and a fair deal across the board. If we get that, we won’t have to have the problems we have now,” Lynch told Sky News. Transport Minister Grant Shapps insists that job cuts “will be mostly” voluntary” and reforms will be made “come what may”.

The situation is even more complicated in London where a strike on the Underground is affecting most lines in protest over pensions. Workers in other sectors, such as doctors, teachers, and even lawyers, are also considering going on strike in what is shaping up to be a “hot” summer.

The British economy initially recovered strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic, but a combination of labor shortages, supply chain disruption, inflation and post-Brexit trade problems have caused signs of a recession . The government says it is providing additional support to millions of households, but claims that wage increases above inflation would damage the economy. “Sustained higher levels of inflation would have a much greater impact on people’s payrolls in the long term, destroying savings and extending the difficulties we would face for longer,” Johnson said.

The strike outbreak has been compared to the 1970s, when the U.K. faced widespread labor strikes, such as the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79. The strikes come as travelers at British airports suffer chaotic delays and last-minute cancellations due to staff shortages, while many Britons have to wait months for new passports to arrive due to processing delays.

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