Rail strikes: is Britain on track for a ‘summer of discontent’?

The ‘biggest rail strike in modern history’ is planned for next week

Trains across the UK could come to a standstill from June
(Image credit: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The industrial strife that brought Britain to its knees in the 1970s may be “a distant memory”, said The Times. But we’re about to learn that “militant trade unionism” can still wreak havoc: next week, 40,000 rail workers will strike for three days; and 10,000 London Underground workers will also walk out. The biggest rail strike since 1989, it will create misery for hundreds of thousands of people, ranging from teenagers sitting public exams to cricket fans trying to get to the Test at Headingley; and it may just be the start.

Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), has threatened a “summer of discontent” in pursuit of his members’ demands. These include pay rises in line with inflation, and no compulsory redundancies or changes to working practices.

He has a neck on him, said Stephen Pollard in the Daily Express. Yes, the reported 2% pay rise on offer is not a lot after a pay freeze, but millions are struggling with price rises, and his members do better than most. For railway workers, the median salary last year was £45,000 – far more than nurses and teachers, and more than the national average of £31,000.

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The government spent £12bn to keep trains running in the pandemic, said Guy Adams in the Daily Mail, and passenger numbers are down 25%. Yet the unions not only want pay rises, they’re also resisting efficiency savings and other modernising reforms. For instance, demand for weekend travel is growing, but at the moment, drivers can’t be made to work on Sundays.

If rail workers have decent working conditions, shouldn’t this be something to celebrate, asked Owen Jones in The Guardian. The Tories don’t think so. They like to extol the virtue of work as a route out of poverty; yet by smashing the unions in the 1980s, they destroyed the most effective means of ensuring that workers had a “comfortable existence”.

Now, most people in poverty are in work. The Tories still “see in every strike the chance to tell voters that Labour is in hock to powerful ‘union barons’”, said Steven Fielding in The Spectator; and Keir Starmer has been careful to neither condemn nor support next week’s strike.

Yet Conservative “rhetoric” is at “variance with reality”; today, fewer than one in four workers are unionised (down from one in two in the 1970s), and the “public revulsion at the ease with which P&O sacked its employees” earlier this year suggests that voters no longer see the unions as overmighty. Perhaps Labour should be “less afraid to be seen as the workers’ friend”.

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