Rail strikes are due to bring the country to a standstill this week but could affect Britain for much longer if unions decide to widen their protest.
A row between rail unions and operators culminated in the biggest strike the UK has seen in more than three decades.
With little sign of either side willing to compromise, some union bosses have warned they will not back down until their demands are met – meaning the disruption could linger for a while.
What’s going on this week?
Network Rail workers across the country are on strike Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The London Underground will join them on Tuesday.
That means only 20% of usual services will be operational and rail operators are encouraging people not to travel. However, with GCSE and A Level exams taking place this week alongside Britain’s biggest festival, Glastonbury, many people will be looking for alternative routes instead.
Some areas will be completely cut off from rail traffic and although there are only three days of action, the rest of the week’s schedule is expected to be disrupted.
Why are workers on strike?
Some 40,000 RMT union members will go on strike after years of failed negotiations with rail operators.
Workers are fighting wages, job losses and their working conditions.
RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch, the i: “We don’t want the disruption, but if we don’t do anything we will just be passive in the face of aggression. And we will lose the ground that we have gained over decades and we could lose our credibility as an organization. We have no choice.”
Why do people think the strikes could last longer?
Lynch told the newspaper i that a longer dispute – well into the autumn – could be possible.
“It may have to be like this, I hope it isn’t, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence at the moment that things will be different.
“The TSA [union] Aslef, which organizes train drivers together with.us, sent back about six or seven ballots on July 11 – only a few weeks away. If there is no agreement, all I can see is this escalating.”
Network Rail and train operators claim job losses and changes to current conditions are needed to limit further taxpayer bailouts as fewer people use rail services since the pandemic.
According to RMT, operators are considering measures such as closing ticket offices, cutting pensions and scrapping collective bargaining to cut costs.
Lynch also stated that RMT – which is leading the action – will decide whether there will be more strikes after this week. He claimed other unions are already considering it.
However, the RMT must announce further measures two weeks in advance so that the general public knows in advance if another strike is imminent.
What is the government doing?
The Government has so far refused to step in and Treasury Secretary Simon Clarke told Sky News: “We do not own the railways ourselves and it would not be right for us to put ourselves in the employer’s place. ”
However, she has expressed dismay at the thought of extending the strikes.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We have repeatedly urged the RMT not to continue these damaging strikes, but shockingly they are now threatening a six-month hiatus instead of focusing on negotiating an agreement.
“This would cause widespread misery for people across the country, impacting jobs, income, education and even doctor’s appointments.”
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is reportedly trying to limit the disruption by changing legislation and allowing operators to use contract workers during the industrial dispute.
Could the industrial action spread to other sectors?
This strike could embolden other public sector workers, including teachers and NHS workers, to change their own working conditions.
This has led to new comparisons with the ‘Winter of Discontent’ when mass strikes over inflation in 1978-1979 brought the country to a standstill.
However, as Clarke said on Monday, the government will not raise public sector wages in line with inflation to avoid “a repeat of the 1970s”.
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