Are rail strikes the start of a summer of discontent?

21 June 2022

5:50 PM

21 June 2022

5:50 PM

This morning, the UK woke up to the largest rail strike in thirty years. As many as 50,000 workers are striking, with just one in five trains running across the country. Commuters have been told to work from home or travel by other means while stations are deserted.

This scenario is one that Brits will have to get used to. The RMT rail union is to strike again on Thursday and Saturday and has vowed to continue striking for ‘as long as it takes’ to get the 7 per cent pay rise it demands. The RMT argue that the 3 per cent rise offered by Network Rail does little to plug the gap caused by rising inflation and the cost of living crisis.

The strike has been timed to cause maximum damage: children are currently sitting GCSEs and A Levels for the first time in three years, Glastonbury music festival begins on Wednesday. Petrol prices are at an all-time high. But then again, what better way to get people to sit up and listen than to make their lives as inconvenient as possible.

There really does seem no end in sight. At least not a swift one. The cost of living crisis is not going to be brought to heel any time soon. It’s perfectly reasonable that rail workers are demanding higher wages: just in February Boris Johnson came out swinging against Bank of England boss Andrew Bailey for suggesting otherwise.

Now the government has backed down from that position. This morning on Sky News Transport Secretary Grant Shapps washed his hands of the matter and said it was for Network Rail and RMT to sort this mess out. RMT union boss Mick Lynch has said the government has prevented employers from negotiating freely.

The trouble is, while they are hammering it out, the rest of the country has to suffer. Without a functioning rail network, many parts of the country are suddenly very badly connected. That makes it hugely difficult for many to get to work or school. It’s more expensive than ever to fill up a car. More cars on the road puts pressure on the emergency services.

It’s not just rail workers either. There are reports that doctors, nurses, care workers, teachers and even criminal barristers on legal aid fees are considering, or have already decided, to strike over low pay.

The Sun newspaper suggested on its front page yesterday that Britain is going back to the 1970s. It’s hard to disagree. We see spiralling inflation and paralysing strike actions. The fear is that, in a society still emerging from a pandemic, this time could be worse.

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