Explained: Why is the UK seeing its biggest strike by railway workers in 30 years?

Britain is in the midst of its largest railway strike in 30 years. Tens of thousands of rail workers took part in a massive strike on Tuesday (June 21) protesting frozen salaries, changing working conditions and proposed job cuts.

More than 40,000 RMT railway employees took part in the strike, which will continue on June 23 and 25, after final talks with train operators failed on June 20.

With skyrocketing inflation and a rising cost of living, the railway strike could mark the start of the UK’s ‘summer of discontent’ as several other unions have also threatened to hold similar strikes.

Why did the railway workers go on strike?

Founded in 1990, the RMT is one of Britain’s largest transport unions, with over 80,000 members including security guards, construction workers, catering staff and cleaners.

Members protest against National Rail, a government agency that owns, operates and manages the infrastructure of most of the UK’s rail networks. On May 24, RMT union members voted overwhelmingly to strike over wages and put forward a dispute over job cuts.

The UK faces its highest inflation in 40 years; consumer prices rose by 9% in April 2022. The Bank of England warned it could rise more than 11% later in the year due to rising energy prices, The Wall Street Journal reported.

RMT workers claim that despite the economic turmoil, their salaries have not increased in the past 2-3 years. To cope with the rising cost of living, they are demanding increases of at least 7%. The union has said Network Rail’s offer of a 2% increase, with the possibility of a further 1%, is “unacceptable”, the BBC reported.

Another point of contention is the proposed modernization program of the NS. According to the RMT, this would mean an increase in working hours and the cut of around 2,500 maintenance jobs to save £2bn in the coming years. The RMT claims that these jobs are critical to maintaining railway safety standards.

What has been the government’s response?

Government officials have said it is wrong to claim that the budget has been cut by £2bn. Instead, £16 billion in taxpayers’ money was used to support the railways during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the BBC.

The government has also argued that the changes are necessary because rail revenues have fallen significantly – passenger numbers are currently one-fifth of pre-pandemic figures. People’s travel habits have changed and “railways must also change to adapt to this new reality,” said Andrew Haines, Network Rail’s chief executive on May 25.

Network Rail has also said that 2,000 jobs – not 2,500 as claimed by RMT – would be lost, but none of these cuts would make the railways any less safe.

What kind of salaries do rail workers get?

During a parliamentary debate on June 15, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said salaries “have risen nearly 40% over the past 10 years”. In fact, according to the BBC, it has only risen by 24%, from £35,329 in 2011 to £43,747 in 2022. Over this decade, prices have risen by about 20%.

Shapps also said the average salary for the railway sector was £44,000 (annual; just over Rs 42 lakh at the current exchange rate), “which is considerably higher than the average salary in the country”. The RMT disagrees – it argues that if drivers, who are among the better-paid railway workers, are excluded from the calculation, and cleaning staff are included (to better represent the strikers), the average salary will be £33,000 , the BBC report said.

What impact has the strike had?

Millions of travelers were affected by the strike on Tuesday, as only about 20% of passenger trains were scheduled. Commuters were further hampered by a separate strike by London Underground workers, media reports said.

Although there was no strike on Wednesday, due to the lingering effects of the outage, only 60% of trains would run. Talks were held between the protesting RMT members, Network Rail and train companies.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the strikes were “wrong and unnecessary” and would further harm businesses recovering from Covid-19 disruptions. The AP quoted a calculation by the consultancy The Center for Economics and Business Research that said three days of strike (June 21, 23 and 25) would cost the economy around £91 million.

What happens next here?

RMT Secretary General Mick Lynch said on Tuesday the protests will continue until a settlement is reached. “RMT members are leading the way for all workers in this country who are tired of their wages and working conditions being cut,” he said. “Now is the time to stand up and fight for every railroad worker in this dispute that we will win.”

A large number of other public sector workers have also threatened industrial action. In response to the rising cost of living in Britain, unions representing teachers, airport staff, health workers, lawyers, waste disposal workers, civil servants and local government workers have all threatened strikes unless their demands for wage increases are met.

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