Rail strike paralyzes England

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Britain

Nothing works anymore: the railway strike paralyzes England

Unions challenge Boris Johnson’s government. But it has no ear for calls for pay rises.

The RMT railway workers’ union is taking to the streets these days to demand wages – like here at London’s Victoria station.

Matt Dunham/UKTN

Empty stations, completely blocked roads in conurbations, huge delays – at the start of Britain’s biggest railway workers’ strike for 30 years, the island’s transport infrastructure has largely come to a standstill. In addition to two more strike days this week, the RMT union is already planning to expand the industrial action. Frances O’Grady, president of the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC), believes workers from other sectors may soon be implicated:

“After more than ten years of stagnant wages, several million people are directly feeling the constant rise in prices.”

According to the National Statistics Authority, inflation was last at 7.8%, with the central bank forecasting inflation over 11% for the fall. This is precisely why the parties to the negotiation must exercise restraint, stresses Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “If wages are constantly increased because of rising prices, there will be an inflationary spiral.”

Failed privatization with consequences

Johnson is also giving slogans to privatized railroad companies to hold their ground as tough pay rounds loom in the public sector. Powerful teachers’ unions and Unite, which is responsible for hospital staff, have announced polls. Lawyers want to go on strike next week; they are protesting against their remuneration, which has been steadily deteriorating for years. The situation for the railways is particularly complicated by the unsuccessful privatization by the then Conservative government in the 1990s.

After several serious accidents at the turn of the century, the company Railtrack, which was responsible for the rail network, suffered such massive financial problems that the Labor government of Tony Blair transferred the company to Network Rail (NR). The sole shareholder of this company is the British government. The 13 rail companies currently in operation, on the other hand, have brought their shareholders billions in profits over the years, which came to an abrupt end with the Covid pandemic.

The subsidy tap must be closed

Transport Minister Grant Shapps boasts that the railways were supported with the equivalent of 19 billion francs during the most difficult times of Corona. Going forward, however, businesses will have to get rid of the government drip. This year, the subsidy pot would contain 2.4 billion francs less than in the years preceding the pandemic. This makes job cuts inevitable. “We know how to do it safely,” says NR director Tim Shoveller.

According to the company’s plans, most sales counters referring to online sales will be gradually closed. NR works councils fear that workers and employees will lose part of their pension rights.

The union wants 7 to 8% more wages

The government has refused all calls from the opposition and the union to tackle the problem personally. “Legally we are not the employer,” said Finance Minister Simon Clarke. Instead, railway managers must defend their offer of a 2% wage increase and an additional percentage if the social plan is approved; Mick Lynch, boss of the RMT railway workers’ union, on the other hand, wants to put an end to an increase of 7 to 8% and is fighting against job cuts.

With a mixture of flexibility and aggressiveness, the RMT union has repeatedly imposed wage increases and better working conditions for its approximately 80,000 members. It’s easy to think that the union is antiquated, sometimes downright crazy, writes the business magazine The Economist almost admiringly: “But it works.”

The government, on the other hand, does not want to worry about the railways’ structural problems, preferring to rebrand the unloved infrastructure company Network Rail again – this time as “Great British Railways”.

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