Tuesday morning, tens of thousands of railway workers in Great Britain walked off the job. The strike has brought the train network to a crawl. It’s the country’s biggest transit strike for three decades—and a possible sign of a summer of labor discontent.
About 40,000 cleaners, signalers, maintenance workers, and station staff are holding a 24-hour strike. They plan two more for Thursday and Saturday. London Underground subway services were also hit by a walkout on Tuesday.
The dispute centers on pay, working conditions, and job security as Britain’s railways struggle to adapt to changed travel and commuting habits.
Sustained national strikes are uncommon in Britain these days. But unions have warned the country to brace for more—as workers face the worst cost-of-living squeeze in more than a generation.
For example, lawyers in England and Wales announced that they will walk out starting next week. Teachers’ unions are also planning possible action.
Major railway stations are largely deserted during the strike, with only about 20% of passenger trains scheduled to run. The protest upended the plans of employees trying to get to work, students during exam season, and music-lovers headed for the Glastonbury Festival, which starts Wednesday.
Roads in London were more congested than usual as commuters turned to cars and taxis. But foot traffic was 27% lower than last Tuesday—perhaps since many may have chosen to work from home.
Nurse Priya Govender was at London Bridge station Tuesday morning, struggling to get back to her home south of the city.
“I definitely will not be able to get a bus because they are packed. I will have to get an Uber,” she says.
The Rail, Maritime, and Transport Union says it cannot accept train companies’ latest offer of a 3% raise. The companies argue they can’t offer more with current passenger numbers down 700 million compared to the 12 months before the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Conservative government warns that any big raises will spark a wage-price spiral—driving inflation even higher.
Electrical engineer Harry Charles supports the strikers, even though his normal 10-minute train journey took him 90 minutes by bus.
“Their money is not going up, and the cost of everything is rising,” he says of the strikers. “The strike has caused a lot of hassle for people. But everyone wants be able to eat and be able to afford to put in a good day’s work.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson quickly pinned responsibility for the strike firmly on the unions. He told his Cabinet that the strikes were “so wrong and so unnecessary” and said “union barons” should sit down with bosses and come to a deal.
The government says it plans to change the law so that train companies will have to provide a minimum level of service during walkouts. That could mean hiring contract workers to fill in for striking staff.
Strikes usually pit workers against management. As with all arguments, both sides would do well to heed the Bible’s advice of “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” (Philippians 4:5)
Susan Millson’s take on the strike is similar. The Londoner abandoned a train trip to see her sister south of the city.
“I just think it’s outrageous that there is no give and take between the unions and the government,” she says. “No one is giving any leeway at the moment.”
(A passenger at Euston station in London looks at the departures board on the first day of a rail strike on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)