Britain’s biggest rail strike in 30 years kicked off on Tuesday as tens of thousands of staff walked out in a dispute over pay and jobs that could pave the way for widespread industrial action across the economy in the coming months.
Picket lines appeared at dawn and will be lined by some of the more than 40,000 rail workers who are due to strike on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, bringing the network to a standstill. The London Underground was also shut down due to the strike.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, under pressure to do more to help British households that face the toughest economic hit in decades, said the industrial action would harm businesses as they continue to recover from the pandemic.
Unions have said the rail strikes could mark the start of a “summer of discontent” with teachers, medics, waste disposal workers and even barristers moving toward industrial action as surging food and fuel prices pushes inflation toward 10 per cent.
“Our campaign will run for as long as it needs to run,” Mick Lynch, secretary general of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), told reporters on Monday.
The prime minister said the unions were harming the people they claimed to be helping.
Johnson told his cabinet the strikes were “wrong and unnecessary” and said his message to the country was that they needed to be ready to “stay the course” as improvements to the way railways are run was in the public’s interest.
A survey by pollsters YouGov earlier this month found public opinion divided, with around half of those questioned opposed to the action and just over a third saying they supported it.
Leo Rudolph, a 36-year-old lawyer who walked to work, said he would become more disgruntled the longer the dispute holds.
“This isn’t going to be an isolated occurrence, right?” he told Reuters.
Britain’s economy initially rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic, but a combination of labor shortages, supply chain disruption, inflation and post-Brexit trade problems has prompted warnings of a recession.
The government says it is giving extra support to millions of the poorest households but says above-inflation pay rises would damage the fundamentals of the economy.
“Sustained higher levels of inflation would have a far bigger impact on people’s pay packets in the long run, destroying savings and extending the difficulties we’re facing for longer,” Johnson said.
The outbreak of industrial action has drawn comparison with the 1970s, when Britain faced widespread labor strikes including the 1978-79 “winter of discontent.”
The strikes come as travelers at British airports experience chaotic delays and last-minute cancellations due to staff shortages, while many Britons have to wait months for new passports to arrive due to processing delays.
The rail strike means only about half of Britain’s rail network will be open on strike days with a very limited service running on those lines and continued disruption on the days in between strike days.