UK railway strike could undermine post-holiday return-to-work plans

The winter holiday season across most of Britain ends on Tuesday, but the return to work for millions of Britons comes the same day as another train strike, promising a journey as unpredictable as the rail network increasingly erratic in the country.

Britain is starting the new year as it ended the old, amid a wave of social unrest that has so far involved 1.5 million workers, concentrated in the public sector and former state-owned companies. Nurses from England, Northern Ireland and Wales left the country twice last month; paramedics staged their biggest work stoppage in decades; and border agents, postal staff and garbage collectors took similar action in a “winter of discontent”.

With wages lagging behind runaway inflation, many, including nurses, plan to stop work again this month, leading some UK news outlets to raise fears of a de facto general strike that will could paralyze the country.

Yet while months of disruption have eroded some sympathy for railway workers, with the public roughly divided over train strikes, support for health workers, whose tireless efforts during the coronavirus pandemic have been widely hailed as heroic, remains dynamic.

“January will be the test: will the British public change?” said Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. He added that while further railway strikes could provoke a longstanding backlash against unions, “it is remarkable how little of that has happened.”

It is not for lack of effort on the part of Britain’s Conservative tabloids. A newspaper dubbed Mick Lynch, the combative leader of a railroad union, “The Grinch”, accusing him of ruining Christmas, ruining office parties and obstructing family gatherings. In the city of Bristol, a pub canceled a Christmas party for railway workers in retaliation for strikes that allegedly hurt the hotel industry.

But in general, support for the strikers remained strong, according to a YouGov opinion poll last month, which showed that 66% of those polled supported the striking nurses and 28% opposed them, 58 in favor of the firefighters against 33 against and 43% in favor of the railway. workers with 49 oppositions. Another poll, conducted by Savanta ComRes, found the same percentage in favor of further rail strikes, but only 36% opposed.

Even many Britons who support the ruling Conservative Party say they believe health workers have a case, reflecting both the popularity of the country’s National Health Service and concerns about its ability to cope with huge pressures. And, underscoring a growing sense of unease, another poll recorded a majority agreeing with the statement that ‘nothing works in Britain anymore’.

That may pose a challenge to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who insists agreeing to raises could entrench inflation, which he sees as the true enemy of working people. Instead, he promises new, as yet unspecified, laws to curb labor unrest, while union critics say rail workers are risking their futures as commuters stay away from a suffering network already from the growth of working from home.

“It’s difficult for everyone because inflation is where it is, and the best way to help them and everyone in the country is to get inflation under control and lower as quickly as possible. “, Mr. Sunak told a parliamentary committee in December. , asked about the fate of the strikers.

Reports suggest an agreement to end the continuing series of railway strikes could be close, but despite holding the purse strings on railway staff employers, the government has resisted direct involvement in the negotiations.

The wave of strikes comes amid Britain’s cost of living crisis and follows years of restrained public spending, and unions say they are reacting to a decade of neglect of vital services.

“I think the fact that this comes after 10-12 years of austerity has affected the mood of the public and is perhaps what helps unions and their members not lose public support,” Peter said. Kellner, a survey expert. “The evidence so far is that public opinion has not materially changed. I see no particular reason why this should be the case, especially with the health service,” he added.

At King’s Cross station in London last week, there were certainly signs of annoyance among commuters over disrupted services.

“Most of the time my train gets canceled or delayed,” said Daisy Smith, an airline worker from London who was waiting to fly to York, about two hours north of the capital. “It’s ridiculous that they are on strike.”

But Ms Smith said she sympathized with the strikers, believed they deserved a pay rise and was frustrated by the standoff. “The government needs to do something about this,” she said, adding that the conflict had been allowed to fester for months.

Andrew Allonby, a public sector worker returning to his home in Newcastle, northeast England, said he too was supporting the strikers.

“I know there’s no money, but there must be a queue,” he said, referring to reports that some health workers were counting on donations. ‘grocery store. “Nurses forced to go to food banks is ridiculous.”

Public sympathy is driven by the widespread feeling that the health care system is understaffed and overwhelmed. A senior doctor has made headlines warning that up to 500 patients a week could die due to long emergency room delays across the country. And on Monday, the vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine said many emergency services were in a state of crisis.

Pay levels for nurses are recommended by an independent body whose suggestion of a 4.3 per cent increase, issued before most of last year’s inflation was evident, was accepted by the government .

That’s well below the 19 per cent demanded by nurses, but ministers refused to budge, pointing to a 3 per cent annual increase for nurses in 2021, when many others’ salaries were frozen for the year.

UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay sparked anger last month when he said striking ambulance unions had made a ‘conscious choice to hurt patients’ – a statement described by Sharon Graham, the general secretary. of the Unite union, as a “blatant lie”. ”

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, told broadcaster Sky News: ‘We’ve had 10 years where our pay hasn’t kept pace with inflation. He added that 40,000 government staff were using food banks and 45,000 of them were so poor they had to claim social benefits.

Dawn Poole, a striking Border Force officer at London’s Heathrow International Airport and union representative, said rising food and energy costs, combined with rising mortgage interest rates , had been the last straw for the already struggling staff.

“We’ve had people who were selling houses down or struggling to pay rent,” she said.

Mr. Sunak’s tough stance is a gamble. If the strikes collapse, it could bolster his reputation as a leader capable of standing firm and administering tough measures to stabilize the economy. It could also bolster his leadership in a fractious Conservative Party, where union advocacy is associated with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who came to power in 1979 after social unrest also known as Winter discontent and faced striking miners.

Mrs Thatcher, however, braced herself for her clash with the miners, ensuring coal stocks were high and confronting them at a time when unions were widely seen as too powerful.

By contrast, today’s unions seem more in tune with the popular mood, analysts say, because Britons know that long before the strikes their railways were unreliable and their health service cracked under acute pressure.

“The argument that ‘we’re on strike to save the National Health Service’, which the nurses said, resonates with what people know from their own experience,” Professor Fielding said.

Mr Kellner, the polling expert, said he believed the government should separate nurses and paramedics from other strikers.

“As long as health care workers are on strike, other unions have some coverage,” he said. “If in a month we are where we are now, without fixing anything, I think the government will be in a very bad position.”

In the meantime, train travelers must decide whether they even try to get to the office this week. As one train operator warned: “Until January 8, travel by train only when absolutely necessary.


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