U.K. Rail Workers Strike as Inflation Soars

Date: Wednesday, June 22, 2022
Source: Wall Street Journal

Tens of thousands of transport workers brought the U.K. to a standstill Tuesday during the country’s largest rail strike in three decades.

The strike—prompted by disputes over jobs, pay and pensions—reflects a growing frustration among public workers in the U.K., many of whom feel their wages haven’t kept up with soaring inflation.

The U.K. is experiencing some of the highest rates of inflation in the West, which have squeezed the incomes of many Britons.

In April, the inflation rate hit a 40-year high, with consumer prices 9% higher than a year earlier. The Bank of England expects inflation to peak at more than 11%, possibly late this year.

As prices climbed, a number of rail workers continued to operate under a pay freeze. The government is now pushing transport agencies to make further cuts, including the elimination of 600 front-line positions from London tube stations, according to the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which represents some 83,000 members across sectors.

“It’s not a question of do we want to fight this or not,” said Jared Wood, a member of the executive committee of the union, known as the RMT. “If we don’t fight, we’re going to lose everything. People won’t be able to pay their rent, their heating, their essential bills. We have no option.”

More than 40,000 railway workers are expected to strike this week, with half of Britain’s railways expected to shut down on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. On Tuesday, an estimated 10,000 London Underground workers also went on strike. It is the first time both groups have protested together since 1989.

For many, the result of the strike was paralyzing: millions of passengers were estimated to be affected by transport disruptions, according to Network Rail, the public-sector agency that manages most of Britain’s railways. Additional commuters were stymied on the London Underground, which is administered by Transport for London, a government body.

Hawa Sima, a 27-year-old domestic caregiver, spent nearly two hours trying to get home from her night shift, a trip that normally takes about 45 minutes.

“I’m exhausted,” said Ms. Sima, as she waited for a bus in central London. “I should have been home an hour ago.”

The strike is the latest headache for travelers, and another blow to the beleaguered U.K. tourism industry. On Monday, passengers were left stranded after dozens of flights were canceled at Heathrow Airport, where luggage piled up after issues with the baggage delivery system.

Tourism in the U.K., which was generating as much as 100 billion pounds annually through 2019, equivalent to around $123 billion, has been buffeted by two years of rolling lockdowns. But visitors have returned in force this summer as most restrictions have lifted and marquee events such as the Glastonbury Festival return.

Rosanna Caiulo, visiting the U.K. from Italy, planned to spend the entire day trying to get to the airport, though her plane wasn’t scheduled until Wednesday morning. Evan Riley and Jed Grabman, visiting from the U.S., walked an hour-and-a-half to King’s Cross Station so they could board one of the few trains running to Scotland.

“We appreciate that when we withdraw our labor, that causes inconvenience for the traveling public, but that’s in the nature of any group of workers going on strike,” said Daniel Randall, a customer-service assistant in the London Underground who was picketing at the Oxford Circus Underground Station on Tuesday.

Transport for London has disputed claims that proposed changes would affect pensions or lead to job cuts.

In the last round of talks between the union and Network Rail, rail workers were offered a 2% raise, with the potential for an additional 1% if the union agreed to job cuts. That proposal was declined by the RMT union, which said members need a 7% raise to counter inflation.

“Taxpayers have provided the equivalent of about £600 per household since Covid and passenger numbers are still only at around 75% of prepandemic levels,” said Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, in a press release before the strike. “We need to bring rail up-to-date so that we attract more people back and take no more than our fair share from the public purse.”

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