Britain faces its biggest rail strike in 30 years this week as tens of thousands of staff walk away in a wage dispute that unions warn could lead to concerted action in other sectors amid the mounting cost of living crisis.
UK households are already experiencing the greatest economic pressures in decades, with rising food and fuel prices pushing inflation toward double digits. At the same time, average underlying wages are no higher than in 2006, adjusted for inflation.
More than 50,000 railway workers will go on strike Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday over wage freezes and job losses — what unions see as just the start of a possible “summer of discontent” with teachers, medics, and even lawyers heading into union action.
“Every worker in Britain deserves a raise that reflects the cost of living crises,” said the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers.
“We call for concerted campaigns and action to achieve a better deal for workers and a more just society.”
I am proud to be a railroad worker. I am also proud to be a member of @RMTunion.
That’s why I get up. pic.twitter.com/4Tp3wqtV29
— Jessica Leather (@JPLeather) June 20, 2022
The UK economy initially recovered strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic, but a combination of labor shortages, supply chain disruption, inflation, and post-Brexit trade difficulties has sparked warnings of a recession.
The government says it will support millions of the poorest households, but any move towards wage increases above inflation would damage the economy’s fundamentals.
“Inflation is destroying savings,” Treasury Secretary Simon Clarke, whose remit also includes public sector wages, said Monday.
“It destroys growth. It hurts any economy where it takes an endemic hold. We will have to show a collective, society-wide responsibility.”
The outbreak of industrial action is a comparison to the 1970s, when Britain faced widespread labor strikes, including the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978-79.
Thousands of people participated in a central London demonstration organized by trade unions on Saturday.
The strikes come as travelers at UK airports experience chaotic delays and last-minute cancellations due to staff shortages. At the same time, many Britons have to wait months for new passports due to processing delays.
The rail strike means that only about half of the UK’s rail network will be open on strike days, with very limited service on those lines and continued disruptions on the days between strike days.
It will be a major nuisance to millions nationwide, including commuters, tourists, children attending exams, and revelers traveling to the Glastonbury festival.
Industry association UK Hospitality said the strikes would devastate businesses trying to recover from the pandemic, predicting an economic hit of more than £1 billion to the tourism, leisure, and hospitality sectors.