LONDON: Rush-hour commuters in the UK faced chaos on Tuesday as railway workers launched the network’s biggest strike in more than three decades, forcing people to trek to work on foot, by bike, bus-or simply not bother at all. The RMT rail union argues the strikes are necessary as wages have failed to keep pace with UK inflation, which has hit a 40-year high and is on course to keep rising.
Last-ditch talks to avert the work stoppage broke down on Monday, meaning more than 50,000 RMT members will walk out for three days this week. Train and London Underground stations, normally a sea of people for the morning rush to work, were deserted or even locked, with just a skeleton service running on many networks across the country.
Passengers were warned not to travel all week, with two more days of strike action scheduled for Thursday and Saturday wreaking havoc to schedules. In London, cab firms reported a surge in demand, while main roads were packed with buses and cars, with cyclists weaving in between. Long queues formed at bus stops on the outskirts of London shortly after 6:00 am, but many gave up as services carried on without stopping, already full.
Peter Chiodini, 73, a doctor, he had been “inconvenienced” by having to take the bus rather than the train and did not support the strikes. “I think we do need a guaranteed minimum service because people are going to lose money on this, they’re going to be inconvenienced, children have to get to exams and so on,” he told AFP.
Amber Zito, 24, a canine hydrotherapist from Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, called the strikes “frustrating” after missing her train home, but supported the rail workers. “Everything is kind of going tits up at the moment-planes, trains, everything. “I blame the government. I don’t blame the people who work for train companies at all, they are only trying to do what everyone wants for their job.”
The government maintains that it is an issue to be resolved by the private train operators and the unions. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he “deplored” the strikes, which he said evoked the “bad old days of the 1970s” when industrial action was far more common. “The people that are hurting are people who physically need to turn up for work, maybe on lower pay, perhaps the cleaners in hospitals,” he told Sky News.
‘Stay the course’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, addressing his cabinet, urged “the union barons to sit down with Network Rail and the train companies” to thrash out a deal. The country needed to “stay the course”, defending reforms to the rail network as needed and in the public interest. RMT general-secretary Mick Lynch has described as “unacceptable” offers of below-inflation pay rises by both overground train operators and London Underground, which runs the Tube in the capital. The walkouts risk causing significant disruption to major events including the Glastonbury music festival. Thousands of teenagers taking national school exams could also be hit.
The strikes are the biggest dispute on Britain’s railway network since 1989, according to the RMT. Rail operators, however, warn of disruption throughout the week. Only about 20 percent of services are running during the walkouts and half of all lines are closed. Those lines that are still open are running at reduced capacity. And as well as the above-ground rail strike, RMT members on the London Underground are staging a 24-hour Tube train stoppage Tuesday.
Teachers, lawyers, NHS
Countries around the world are being hit by decades-high inflation as the Ukraine war and the easing of COVID restrictions fuel energy and food price hikes. Unions warn also that railway jobs are at risk, with passenger traffic yet to fully recover after the lifting of coronavirus pandemic lockdowns. The strikes are compounding wider travel chaos after airlines were forced to cut flights owing to staff shortages, causing long delays and frustration for passengers. Thousands of workers were sacked in the aviation industry during the pandemic, and the sector is struggling to recruit workers back as travel demand rebounds following the lifting of lockdowns.
Other areas of the public sector meanwhile are also set to hold strikes. The Criminal Bar Association, representing senior lawyers in England and Wales, have voted to strike from next week in a row over legal aid funding. Teaching staff and workers in the state-run National Health Service are reportedly also mulling strike action. And several other transport unions are balloting members over possible stoppages that could occur in the coming weeks. – AFP